Influencing: A Technologist’s Second Expertise.

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One of the things that I love about the technology industry is that it is full of smart capable people. IT professionals that I have the privilege to work with all have tremendous knowledge and expertise, which has been built over years and in some cases decades of study and practical application.  As a result of this training and expertise technology people can see opportunities and issues that not many others can see. There are many examples of this.  One that I have written about before and what is burnt on my mind was an opportunity to allow the team at The Warehouse to effectively work anywhere, anytime, anyway they wanted. The opportunity was clear, the users from the pilot were enthusiastic and the business case made sense and the project was rejected.

Great ideas from a talented team of technology professionals rejected by the organisation. For many, this is a recurring theme. Despite undoubted expertise many technology teams struggle to get buy in to their ideas. Non-technical professionals (and some IT management) just don’t seem to “get it” in the same way that IT professionals do. The reality is that for IT professionals to be successful and have the impact that they want to have requires more than great technical expertise, it also requires the ability to influence others.

Unfortunately influencing skills do not appear to come naturally to many technology professionals. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, after all IT has always been full of introverts and most people are attracted to technology because we find solace in the logical challenge of working out solutions to problems on our own. This problem solving skill, sometimes wrapped in superb creativity, is one of the superpowers that IT people are blessed with, but it comes at a cost. While our very best technical people are awesome problem solvers, they sometimes struggle to effectively communicate with their non IT business peers.

I was talking about this dilemma with Linda Hutchings a couple of weeks ago. Linda is a leadership development expert and as it turns out she spends much of her time working with highly skilled experts who have dedicated their lives to being the very best in their field and who for a variety of reasons have now decided it is time to step into a leadership role and they turn to Linda for support (by the way, if this sounds like you, you owe it to yourself to check out Linda’s work at One of the challenges these experts face when transitioning from their deep professional expertise to a leadership role is an expectation that their expertise will transition to this new role. Sometimes this happens, but often it doesn’t. We all know of, or have worked with, that brilliant tax accountant or engineer or doctor who became a bad manager.

Linda pointed out that leadership is its own unique set of skills and capabilities, its own expertise and while these highly accomplished experts have spent years honing and building their professional expertise they have not spent the same amount of time and energy building their leadership expertise.  Usually, the issue is not that these professionals are terrible leaders, rather it’s that they haven’t invested in building these leadership skills and capabilities. Within this context Linda positioned leadership as a second expertise and you build leadership expertise in the same way you build any expertise, you start as a novice, learn and hone skills over time and continue to build your leadership skills until you are competent, then proficient and then, if needed and desired, expert.

The notion of a second expertise struck a chord with me. It makes sense and I immediately could see that for technical experts to be successful they need not only great technical expertise, but they also require a second expertise, the ability to influence others. Further, putting influence in the context of being a second expertise is empowering as it positions influence as a learnable skill rather than as an innate ability that most IT professionals lack. We simply need to study and practice it in a similar way that we studied and practiced our core technical expertise.

That’s the good news, influence can be learnt just like any expertise of body of knowledge, however, influencing is a different expertise to the technical expertise that we have developed over many years and to learn this new expertise IT professionals will need to be prepared to make three key shifts.  Specifically you will need to:

  1. Change your perspective from a focus on understanding and implementing technical solutions to a focus of understanding and solving business problems.
  2. Learn the skills of influence to amplify the impact of your technology skills (and you will need to learn how to utilize these skills in an appropriate and ethical way).
  3. Take new actions that bring your influencing skills and perspectives to life and create the results you are seeking.

If you are up for the challenge of building a second expertise in influencing a great place to start is to be curious about the other person. I reckon most IT professionals are naturally curious people and use curiosity daily to build technical expertise. To build influencing skills get curious about the person you wish to influence. You can do this by asking questions like:

  1. Why do they do what they do?
  2. Why do they want this thing they are asking for?
  3. What are they trying to achieve?
  4. Why is that important to them?

If you do this consistently you will begin to understand them and their world better and set the foundations of understanding what influence is built on.

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Owen McCall

It seems that everyone these days believes in the power of technology to transform. Believing in the power of IT to transform is one thing, actually making it happen however, is an entirely different matter. The road to fulfilling IT’s potential to transform our organisations is more often a road to failure than it is a road to success. Just look at the statistics. Most pundits agree that 70+% of IT enabled change programmes fail. As a lover of technology and a believer in technology’s potential to transform, Owen McCall finds statistics like this very frustrating. As a result he now dedicates his time to supporting organisations to implement better ways to deliver change and to fulfil on technology's transformative power. Owen is a qualified accountant and was previously a partner in Deloitte Consulting where for several years he led Deloitte’s Australasian outsourcing business before returning to New Zealand to take up the position of CIO of The Warehouse Group. In addition to running his practice Owen is a regular blogger and contributor to CIO and iStart publications and is sought after as both an event speaker and judge of industry awards including CIO 100 and the NZ Hi Tech Awards. For more information visit