04/30/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

About Leadership: How Jobs Change With Career Progress

There is a popular model used by many HR folk that conveys to employees, especially those progressing in the corporation, that at the outset of a career a job is mostly technical content (by which is meant specialist content, for example, selling would be technical in this regard), but that as one progresses, the technical content is reduced and the managerial content is increased. This little model envisions that the total amount of content is constant, but the balance shifts.

It is so easy for our young managers to accept this that I think it must be completely debunked. It is just plain wrong. Why?

First, we develop as individuals. If we are learning, if we are growing, if we are developing our skills, then we actually are growing the range of things we can do. Sure, if we were to look at how we spend the hours of a work week, more of them might be spent on things viewed as managerial, and fewer on things viewed as technical. But that is not very relevant. Our productivity per hour has increased and the range of work we accomplish should have radically broadened.

What is relevant is that the collection of skills and competencies that we need to do the job well, at any stage of our career, changes. And that brings us to the second fallacy; the technical content goes down. I think that as you progress you exchange a requirement for technical depth with a demand for technical breadth.

The CEO or COO does not need to know how to solve key flow equations in the plant, or how to construct a spreadsheet of the monthly results of that plant. But he or she does need to know what the plant makes, how it makes it, what are the key elements of the corporation's technical edge, what could put these at risk. In a big company, there are many technologies operating, and the CEO needs to understand each and every one of these at some level - enough to be able to ask the right questions, make informed important strategic decisions, and see what is threatening results.

He or she needs to be able to speak convincingly to the investor community about the business, not just in a managerial way, but in a broad technical way.

Of course, leadership, as my columns try to convey, does involve a lot of learned skills. And everyone who aspires to grow as a leader must be developing these skills, and honing them through practice. But they are not best practiced when completely divorced from technical understanding. Rather, we develop our leadership skills by using them in the technical context of our business. I believe that great leaders who move between very different companies, for example one who went from Phillip Morris to IBM, bring well developed business instincts, and a full toolkit of motivational competencies. But they also know that this is not enough for success. They have the ability to learn, quickly, the 'technical' aspects of the new business and its global dynamics.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?