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Leadership means moving beyond the technology to the business issues

Many technology-intensive professionals, such as engineers, believe strongly that technical excellence is their path to career success. So they focus on technical aspects such as accuracy in measurement, workable designs and elegant code.

And these aspects are important -- as a non-engineer I’m glad that the bridges I walk across are designed by people who care about getting it right.

But to grow into a leadership role, these professionals need to move beyond the technology, to understanding the business issues behind their work. They need to think more about the why, as well as the how.

Learn to focus on user benefits

I see this often in my work, which includes helping technical professionals such as engineers, to demonstrate their expertise through publishing their ideas. Generally, this is not so much in engineering-focused publications, as it is in publications read by potential clients and customers.

Consider a project I worked on recently, which involved interviewing a PhD I’ll call “Jasmine” to help her publish an article in a mining magazine. And Jasmine was clearly brilliant at her specialty, which was the use and interpretation of remote sensory images-- photographs, radar scans and LiDAR images of the earth, taken from satellite.

In this case, the article was about how Jasmine can help mining companies detect subsidence --- when close-to-the-surface mine workings collapse, eventually leading tosinking of the ground overhead. This causes huge environmental issues as it interrupts drainage patterns, as well as playing havoc with building foundations, roads and railroads.

Prior to satellites, surveyors would use theodolites and other ground-based equipment to laboriously map the ground, checking for elevation changes that would indicate subsidence was occurring.

The advent of low-cost, high-resolution images, frequently updated for many parts of the world, has been a game-changer. Jasmine was in a powerful position -- she could deliver credible, actionable reports on an issue of increasing concern to mining companies.

Now, ask yourself:

  • What was Jasmine selling?
  • And what were her clients buying?

Not the same thing.

Be sure you know what problem you’re solving

My talk with Jasmine indicated that from her perspective, what she was selling was a service that provided reports on ground subsidence. However, it’s unlikely that this is how her clients saw it.

Jasmine’s clients were buying the ability to obtain accurate, credible results in real time, that would demonstrate their wise leadership to senior management and their financial backers. They were buying not so much Jasmine’s reports, but the benefits that those reports provided.

In our interview, Jasmine was telling me how much faster she could produce credible reports than was possible even with the computer and data resources available a few years ago. So I asked her, “How does the client benefit from your ability to get results quickly?”

There was a pause at the other end of the line. I could almost hear her thinking of benefits to the client. Then she told me. With faster results, the mining company could detect changes to the surface while they were still small. Then, the company could take steps such as shoring up or backfilling the underground workings subsidence before it became a serious problem, before impacts on surface were serious. To me, that was a pretty good benefit. I like to think that Jasmine had a better understanding of how her work helps the client as a result of that call.

It’s the same with many technical professionals as they move into a leadership or client-facing role. They need to understand more about how their work is being used -- how it’s more than a function, it’s a set of solutions.

Questions to consider:

  • What problems does your work solve?
  • What opportunities does your work help access?
  • How can you convey this problem-solving and opportunity-accessing in the way you describe your work?
  • How can you focus your work more on benefits to those you serve -- your clients, or your employer?
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