The Relationship Focus of Hidden Leaders

Hidden Leaders Build Relationships

Scott Edinger is the co-author, along with Laurie Sain, of the upcoming book The Hidden Leader, which helps employers learn how to recognize and cultivate talented but under-utilized employees. Here he speaks about one such group of hidden leaders: the tech stars.

In December 2014, a computer software problem caused extensive delays throughout the British airspace. In these times, we have grown accustomed to these types of delays, and to the rationale of “glitches.”

In my work, I have come to believe that helping tech people learn to collaborate effectively can go a long way towards preventing glitch-related disasters. This collaboration can also be valuable when glitches occur by accelerating the resolution process.

When working to increase the productive output of teams of software engineers, one key involves identifying who the most successful software engineers are, so their performance can be replicated. I supplemented my own observations by talking with a team at IBM that was doing much the same thing — analyzing data to determine the traits that made software developers successful.

IBM had expected the most successful to be the ones most technically competent — but what they found was that best were those most adept at teamwork, collaboration, and building relationships.

“Most of the time, rightly or wrongly, software engineers and developers are typically thought of as loners, preferring to work independently and not necessarily working well with others. But in fact, according to IBM’s findings, the most successful software engineers buck the common stereotypes.” – Bryan Hayes, a director with Kenexa

In particular, IBM found, the most successful technical staffers are the ones who:

Make a contribution to others.

One of the ways already expert technical leaders can further strengthen their technical and professional skills, as the article “Making Yourself Indispensable” explains, is to become better at the complementary skill of developing other people. Coaching and developing others enables technical professionals to share their knowledge and experience, broadening their impact on the organization they work for. The old saying credited to Yogi Bajhan— “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it” — is particularly apt for technical experts. If you’ve ever prepared to teach a class or even coach someone, you know that it forces you to think much more explicitly about how and why you do what you do well.

Focus on working together in complementary ways to accomplish a common goal. 

The most effective technical experts develop working relationships and forge alliances with colleagues so they can effectively share both information and resources critical to the success of a project. They recognize that their expertise is only a means to an end of accomplishing common goals. On one very effective team I observed, for instance, software engineers were particularly deft at dividing up tasks in a way that would help the group reach the company’s goals the fastest. They focused on who could most effectively get each task done even when that meant some people would have to give more effort and time than others.

Display a highly collaborative spirit. 

I know, you don’t often think about a lot of spirit when it comes to engineers, but the most successful possess it. Dan Goleman highlighted a study at Bell Labs in his seminal book Emotional Intelligence that sought to identify what set apart the top 10% of this already elite group. The critical difference, detailed interviews revealed, was not academic pedigree or IQ but the stars’ interpersonal skills and how much their professional relationships contributed to their engineering work performance. When technical experts don’t do a good job developing relationships, their technical competence is hidden.

Are highly responsive to the needs of their customers.

It will not surprise the less technical among you that the most effective software engineers kept a firm eye on the purpose of their efforts by keeping the customer at the center of their activities. This should go without saying, but any software engineer will tell you how easy it is to focus on the details of a job and lose sight of its ultimate purpose. Rather than just designing or building to specs, the best technical experts use questions like “How will customers ultimately use this?” and “What is the client trying to accomplish?” to spur creative solutions or anticipate unintended consequences.

The best of the best shatter our stereotypical image of the technician working away in isolation, coding, solving, building, and fixing. They are in fact, among the most relationship-focused people in an organization.

It’s in learning to keep a relationship focus that hidden leadership qualities can take off. tweet this


Scott Edinger

Scott Edinger is a recognized expert in helping organizations achieve measurable business results. He is a consultant, author, speaker and executive coach who has worked with some of the most prominent organizations in the world including AT&T, Harvard Business Publishing, Bank of America, Lenovo, Gannett and The Los Angeles Times.


A version of this post originally appeared on The Edinger Group.



Enter A Comment

Chery Gegelman   |   17 January 2015   |   Reply

Sounds like a great book! Thanks for sharing Susan!

Susan Mazza   |   21 January 2015   |   Reply

Thanks Chery!