Going from the tea boy to company head may once have been possible; but these days to start the route to the top, you have to have specialist knowledge and skills.
In the US, many well-known CEOs started in marketing. In Britain, most started as accountants or actuaries. Of course, some also started out as engineers or lawyers.
But the question is whether specialists can become good leaders. In most cases, the answer is clearly no. Many organizations suffer from the problem of having as their leader a brilliant specialist who has neither people skills nor curiosity about the wider world of business.
Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, offers an explanation for this. Future specialists can often be recognized in their youth, he says. They are usually boys, often intelligent, frequently introverted. While they may have a few close friends who share their interests, they tend not to be sociable.
Because making friends is difficult, they withdraw into an interesting, controllable world dominated mostly by computers. As a result, they become specialists. But they miss out on an important period of growth in which the "EQ" is developed through social activites. Our specialists, therefore, tend to have low emotional intelligence.
However, having avoided a social life, they had time to do very well at school and university. They are often excellent at maths and technology, and are excellent analysts. They also often end up in a class with people just like themselves. Indeed, professors may be amazed at how similar the temperaments and talents are in a final-year engineering, maths or physics class.
These are the people who become talented in IT or as accountants, actuaries and engineers. But specialists who are leaders will also have to deal with employees, customers and managers who may be very different from them. For this they will need people skills.
Specialists react to the problem in many ways. Some try hard to learn these skills, and succeed. Others find a deputy (often a woman) who does the soft work. However, there are many who simply ignore the problem. They communicate by e-mail and are hard to reach. And they don't regard HR requirements such as setting goals or giving feedback as important. The result is that people do not enjoy being managd by them.
Promoting brilliant specialists into manager roles is therefore problematic. But there are solutions. One is to avoid the situation altogether and emply a professional manager. This, however, can anger specialists, who feel their career paths are being blocked. Another solution is to promote specialists in title only. The best method, however, is to select talented specialists who show some people skills and give them intensive management training.
They say it takes one psychologist to change a light bulb, but he or she needs to want it to be changed. Equally, specialists can become good managers, but they need to know what skills will be required of them--and be prepared to develop them.