Business Schools

Techies Need to Know the Business


Smart companies make sure their technical experts have an understanding of the business that extends beyond a single department or function

Ask around your office: "Who is a typical business person?"You'll probably hear investment banker, brand manager, sales rep, or accountant. The replies almost certainly won't include technical experts, such as a Motorola (MOT) engineer, an Abbott Laboratories (ABT) scientist, or an Allstate (ALL) IT analyst. In fact, according to our interviews with such professionals at Chicago-area companies, many actually reject the label "businessperson."

Chicago's dynamic economy offers almost unlimited options for bright, experienced professionals. Yet too many technical experts—people with drive, expertise, and heart—choose to move out of their organizations, when what they really want is a chance to move up. Even armed with PhDs and years of experience, many professionals with deep, specialized knowledge don't have the clout, business perspective, or the right jargon to make their ideas understood at their organizations' highest levels. At the same time, their employers are frustrated by the significant costs of over-engineered products or by the pursuit of projects not aligned with their market.

Broad Skills

The solution? Technical experts need to be viewed and developed as business professionals early in their careers; at the speed of business today, it's essential to align every activity to strategy. Increasingly, areas such as information technology and R&D are moving from being cost centers to driving business strategy. Effective leaders in technical areas require an understanding of the business that extends beyond a single department or function.

Recently, Lake Forest Graduate School of Management conducted research with more than 600 local business executives to identify the critical competencies of their most effective leaders and high-potential managers. In addition, 50 other individuals were interviewed specifically about IT and R&D professionals.

Continuous technical training is critical, of course. Our research determined, however, that successful companies go further. They urge their technical experts to take classes that will make them more broadly skilled in at least these three areas: knowing the business, relating to people, and delivering results.

Thinking Strategically

People who truly "know the business" think strategically and recognize how everything fits together. This requires seeing things from the point of view of other departments, understanding how financial data drive organizations, and having a working knowledge of core functions, such as the supply chain, marketing, and human resources. Effective leaders also have a personal presence that enables them to communicate confidently across departments and to guide and work in teams, while making smart and ethical decisions.

Qingxia "Chad" Liu knows all about venturing beyond his comfort zone. A group leader at USG's (USG) Research & Technology Innovation Center in Libertyville, Ill., Liu has a PhD in engineering and is known internationally. Yet he recognizes the importance of business acumen. "I needed to understand business fundamentals better to help turn more of my team's discoveries into successful products," he says. "It wasn't easy, but as I strengthened my management skills and learned the language of business, this gave me confidence to take on broader and higher responsibilities in my organization."

I am not suggesting experts become generalists. Functional expertise is often the foundation of business success. But technical experts who both embrace their specialties and gain a broader perspective on the entire business are more likely to make stronger contributions. If technical experts are core to your strategy, consider opening a dialogue that helps your organization view these valued individuals as business people from the start.

Arlene J. Mayzel is dean of Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. This essay originally appeared in BW Chicago).

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