Leadership Development Framework for the Technical Acquisition Workforce
Human Capital Development
Dr. Wilson Felder
Large and complex technical undertakings – sophisticated weapon systems, diverse research institutions, major programs of national importance, and the like – require unique skills of their leaders. These individuals must have a strong technical background AND a special ability to lead people of varying backgrounds and disciplines.
The required skill set is not easily acquired after one has already been confronted with the difficulties inherent in these positions. These skills must instead be honed over a career of increasingly challenging assignments, starting as soon as the fledgling technical leader has graduated from a foundational engineering or science baccalaureate program.
In this study, we ask what such a career-long development journey might look like, and suggest an approach to acquiring the necessary skills. We base our work on existing scholarship, which has largely focused on understanding what the characteristics of successful technical leaders are, particularly at the highest levels. However, our approach has been more deductive than previous efforts, which is to say, that we have attempted to establish not what a typical career has been for successful technical leaders, but rather, what it should be. We have based our conclusions on integrative understanding from our own extensive cumulative experience as executives in industry and government, along with insights gained from numerous colleagues from a diverse set of institutions.
We do not claim that this is the way others have developed great technical leaders. Although the methods we recommend have been demonstrated to be effective, the sum total of our recommendations represents a new approach, and our assertion that this is the way we should proceed. The good news is that the approach reported on here can be applied by individual aspiring and developing leaders, by their supervisors and executive sponsors, or by entire agencies or subordinate commands at any level in the Department of Defense. The successful application of the Framework and Career Model we have developed does not depend on a formal top-down program: indeed, while our study has focused on the Department of Defense, this approach is applicable to any technical leadership situation, inside or outside of government.
The Framework recognizes three broadly defined career stages – junior, mid-level, and senior, modelled on the typical supervisory responsibilities of leaders at each level, but equally applicable to non-supervisory roles.
The core of the Framework is a set of 24 carefully curated competencies that reflect the dual nature of the technical leader’s role: each of the 24 is essentially technical in nature, but is also essentially a leadership competency. It is our belief, based on our own experience, interviews with subject matter experts, and the existing literature, that any individual who acquires this set of competencies will naturally perform at the highest level in positions of technical 2 leadership responsibility. That is why a formal program is not required in order to take advantage of the Framework, which can be applied by individuals as well as institutions.
To assist individuals and organizations in applying the Framework, we define six broad categories of development method: education, training, job assignment, rotational assignments, mentoring, and coaching, and we provide guidance on the use of these methods as tools for development consistent with each career stage.
The Framework is applied through a cyclical process centered on the emerging technical leader, which includes a set of best practices derived from our observation and analysis of technical leadership programs at a variety of best-in-class companies and agencies recognized for their success in leadership development. We have assembled these into a Career Model, combining a number of tools and practices into a single integrated whole, in some cases bringing practices together for the first time.
The Model incorporates a number of insights, of which perhaps the most important one is that technical leadership development cannot succeed as an independent initiative. Success in building technical leaders in an organization requires that the development process must be fully integrated (or at the very least, consistent) with the organization’s formal human resource management practices, including recruitment, promotion, and job assignment. Although this finding may appear to contradict our assertion that an individual can apply the Framework to their own career planning and execution, this is not so: what we are talking about here is the application of technical leadership development as an organizational policy, as opposed to leaving the matter up to the initiative and discretion of individuals.
A second key finding is that leadership development must be associated with objective assessment techniques that are evidence-based and reflective of accomplishments, not capabilities. We offer a tool that allows individuals to track their own progress toward attainment of the 24 competencies at each level, and that promotes the all-important conversation between the emerging/developing leader and their supervisor regarding that progress.
Finally, we have found that the very best technical leadership development programs are highly tailored. While we do not believe that tailoring can or should involve skipping or replacing any of the 24 core competencies, we have found that the framing of those competencies within an organization and the way in which they are applied to specific disciplines and organizational sub units is very important: it is particularly true that the mission of the organization and the nature of the technical discipline involved do matter.
The Framework and Career Model we offer here are as complete and well founded as can be, given the state of leadership development research. We must point out, however, that there are a number of questions for which our current understanding does not provide answers. Among these are the following: what evidence is there that a particular development method, training, for example, or coaching, is effective in a particular circumstance? And how do we 3 know that a particular individual, having completed some prescribed development program, has actually learned the concepts and behaviors inherent in a particular competency? These questions are left for further examination and resolution as the result of future investigation.
When it comes to the development of technical leaders at all levels, from the most junior to the most senior, we have only been able to take the first step, describing the landscape and offering some ideas based on expert opinion and limited prior research findings. Providing rigorous technical analysis that confirms or refutes our finding will require substantial additional work. We look forward to sharing this journey with our colleagues.