Which should come first, leadership or technical skills?

Note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

This question came up during a recent conversation with senior training leaders. If you are developing a leader, should you first focus on growing their leadership or their technical skills? 

It's also a challenge that I often hear from Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers, many of whom are customer service leaders, both experienced and aspiring.

The answer is crystal clear, and it's not even close.

 Group of professionals attending a leadership development workshop.

But first, let me share a little about my background and how I've come to see firsthand what works and what doesn't. 

I was the Director of Training and Development for a mid-sized company with 4,200 employees prior to starting my own business. The biggest part of my role was preparing supervisors and managers for promotion, and helping to guide them once they got there. 

Working with hundreds of leaders helped me see what enabled people to be successful in leadership positions.

Today, I'm obsessed with service cultures. The leaders I interviewed and researched for my book, The Service Culture Handbook, came from many industries and backgrounds, but they also had a lot in common in terms of their skillsets.

So back to the question. Should you focus on leadership or technical skills first?

The hands-down answer is technical skills. The answer may surprise you, but I've learned there's good reason why technical skills must come first when developing a leader.

Think of technical skills such as how to run payroll, write a schedule, or evaluate performance as the machine that runs the business. Leadership skills such as building trust, inspiring employees, and giving feedback are the oil that lubricates the machine and helps it run smoothly. There's no question that the machine will run much better with oil (i.e. good leadership), but without a machine you have no business.

Here are some practical examples.

If I had to choose between teaching a manager to run payroll or build trust, I'd first focus on payroll. Employees come to work to get paid (at least in part), and nothing erodes trust faster than a paycheck that's missing or short. 

Things do occasionally go wrong or questions arise when it comes to payroll, which is when building trust is critical for leaders. Knowing technical procedures to resolve those issues provides important context for leaders to develop their trust-building skills.

Vision is another example. There's the technical component, which is actually writing a customer service vision. There's also a leadership component, which is communicating the vision and inspiring employees to follow it. 

There's nothing to inspire people if you don't have the technical know-how to write a good vision in the first place.

The vision writing process I use with my clients includes seeking input and buy-in from employees, which naturally combines both technical and leadership elements. It's the vision creation process itself that provides critical context for leaders to develop and exercise their leadership skills.

Learning of any kind happens best when there's context. When you give leaders technical skills, they establish a very important context to develop their abilities as leaders.

Without those skills, there's no context for leaders to apply any leadership skills they try to learn.