This is not a humoristic blog about Audis slogan.

Some time ago I was reading an article by Murshed Chowdhury while I was listening to U2’s Zooropa. In that album the phrase Vorsprung durch Technik appears. The literal translation is “Progress (or advancement) through Technology. 

In the article following quote struck me:

“It is imperative for you as a technologist to always stay abreast of the technologies you manage. Here are some essential reasons why:

  • You should be able to discuss the technologies with your team
  • That will better enable you to command their respect.

The complaint of many technologists as they seek a new job is that their manager is clueless about the technology and therefore they are not inspired by them.”

I can imagine people are passionate about technology or about technical aspects of their job. I can also imagine that managers who spending less time on that – as they have a team of specialists doing the work – can still be very passionate about technical aspects. They may have been experts themselves before they became managers.

However I have a hard time trying to imagine that maintaining the same level of expertise as your team members have, would be essential to receive their respect and to inspire them ?

Sources of inspiration

So what happens when a manager tries to keep up a high level of technical expertise in terms of respect? In this case a team member might respect the manager only if (s)he is capable of understanding and ideally also of solving technical matters more easily than an expert in the team. From a sales person’s perspective, the boss would still need to have the best commercial results. In a production area, respect would only be there if the boss fixes the problem with the machine that an operator could not fix him/herself. Perhaps a team member would not expect him/her to really solve the problem, but at least to have enough technical knowledge enabling team member to do it ?

If this would be true, I would be worried.

It’s not all of a sudden be forbidden to know something about technique once you become a manager. But it would be a real pity if technique would be the only available or most important source of power or inspiration to make one succeed as a manager.

If you believe that a manager needs to derive his or her capacity for inspiration from technical knowledge, this would imply that a manager needs :

  • to invest time and energy in technical knowledge updates and  in technical practice.
  • to invest in the development of his or her people management and coaching skills (because these need development as well, certainly in the case of a recently appointed manager).
  • to practice people management skills.
  • to avoid stepping into the pitfall of gaining respect by “switching to technique” when it would seem you are not a successful team builder through “soft” skills. This pitfall is the reason I was touched by the article, where stepping into this pitfall seems to be encouraged…
  • to take really a lot on your plate in terms of time and energy. Much more than any other people manager would be able to.

Apart from those arguments, I can imagine that technical knowledge may lead to respect in the eyes of some collaborators.

However when you truly you want to inspire and motivate people to excel and to develop themselves professionally and personally, then I cannot imagine that respect and inspiration coming from technical conversations alone will make the difference.

Sources of power

No doubt, a manager who has been capable of maintaining a high level of technical expertise may personally benefit from that. I already used the word “power” earlier. But here we are no longer talking about the technique as a kind of source of inspiration. Technical knowledge can also be used as a means to maintain a personal position in the organization.

Another quote from the article:

“What I saw in the latest recession was, managers who were making very good salaries when the market was doing well, were now willing to take positions paying as low as a quarter or a third of their earlier salaries. When asked why, the response was almost resoundingly the same; “I became so removed from the technology that I all is do is manage, and my firm has laid off so many people that, my management skills are less warranted than before.”

You remain a vital player in the organization because you bring a strong management background combined with your technology knowledge. Essentially, you are very hard to replace. Upper management will think twice, since they not only lose a manager but also a great technologist as well. Their fear would be compounded by the facts that losing such a person would have a great impact in the team, and you would be that much more difficult to replace.”

Am I saying the author of this article is wrong, or technical sectors applying this approach are wrong?

Of course not, that would be very arrogant.

I am saying that the “fear” of losing one’s job or, formulated positively, the “ambition” to stay vital should in my eyes never be a driver to stick to certain skills that are strictly spoken no longer necessary to be successful at a management level.

I plead for honesty: use your technical power to stay vital. There is nothing wrong with that. But it would become dangerous if you also use that same power to “coach” your people. They need so many other things than only technical know-how to stay engaged in their jobs.

I like to call this phenomenon Macht durch Technik (Power through technicity). But I believe much more in Vorsprung ohne Technik when it comes to working with people, developing and empowering them.

I believe and have personally experienced that when you first prepare your team members for a boss who does not any longer “know” everything, and then you consequently “let go” that dimension of your job, they will be likely to accept and build up their own technical power positions.

And you, as their manager, will have achieved a huge Vorsprung ohne Technik.

Inspiration: Vorsprung ohne Technik.

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