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Unlocking Your Potential: Balancing Perceived and Actual Competence as a Technical Leader

Unlocking Your Potential: Balancing Perceived and Actual Competence as a Technical Leader

Understanding the following concept could be the deciding factor in boosting your career earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Want to make more of an impact? Want bigger roles? Want to face less barriers? This article is for you. Do I have your attention?

For many technical leaders, there is a significant disparity between how competent they truly are and how competent they are perceived to be by others.

In this article, we will explore the concept of balancing perceived and actual competence as a technical leader and why you should make it your mission to do so.

Unlocking your true potential depends on it.

The Competence Matrix

Exploring Competence Dynamics: Mapping Actual vs. Perceived Competence. Original Work by CTO Recipes

To frame this article, I'll start by introducing something I call the Competence Matrix. It's a 2x2 grid inspired by Eisenhower's decision matrix that maps perceived vs actual competence.

The four quadrants are labelled as follows:

Recognized Professionals possess high levels of actual competence and are appropriately recognized and respected for their skills and expertise. Their competence and how colleagues and business leaders perceive them are closely aligned.

Their alignment of perception and reality enables them to establish themselves as reliable and capable leaders, leading to greater opportunities, influence, and career advancement.

These professionals have developed a skill for effectively presenting their capabilities while maintaining humility and authenticity.

Overrated Pretenders create an illusion of high competence, masking their lack of actual skills. They excel at projecting confidence and impressing others, but fall short when it comes to delivering tangible results.

This facade may allow them to temporarily maintain the perception of being highly competent, but it eventually becomes evident that their abilities do not match the initial impression they create.

They rely heavily on their ability to impress others through superficial means, such as using jargon or buzzwords, and quickly adopting advice from books, blog posts, and courses without deeply considering the impacts on the business, all while lacking the true knowledge or expertise they claim to possess.

Underrated talents are the hidden gems in technical leadership, possessing immense skills and expertise that often go unnoticed or underappreciated. Despite exhibiting high levels of actual competence, others in the organization do not fully recognize or value their true capabilities and contributions.

Most up-and-coming technical leaders land in this quadrant until they become more self-aware and develop their soft skills.

Despite their exceptional skills, underrated talents may be overshadowed by louder voices or individuals who excel at self-promotion. Their humility and modesty often lead them to downplay their achievements or shy away from the spotlight. As a result, their true potential remains untapped, and they may not receive the opportunities or recognition they deserve.

Self-promotion is a thin line. You can achieve it authentically without superficial means, and we'll discuss how and why it's important later in this article.

More often than not, though, they simply don't know how to communicate the right message concisely to grab the attention of others.

Identified Underperformers struggle to meet expectations and deliver results in their technical leadership roles. Their actual competence falls short of what is required, resulting in subpar performance and challenges in effectively fulfilling their responsibilities.

Novices in a new role are excluded from this label, as their performance is still in the learning and development phase rather than a reflection of their true competence.

These individuals may have been initially perceived as competent, but their lack of skills and expertise became evident over time. Colleagues and business leaders identify their underperformance, leading to diminished trust and confidence in their leadership abilities.

Actual and perceived competence must be developed and balanced. Too much focus on raising perceived competence without real skills will move an Identified Underformer to an Overrated Pretender.

Why People Tend to Be "Underrated Talents"

People with higher actual competence than perceived competence fit into the "Underrated Talents" quadrant of the Competence Matrix above.

Most people end up here without deliberate effort, which I've seen in my career.

The following bullet points highlight why individuals may end up being underrated talents and struggle to move towards becoming recognized professionals:

  • Inability to effectively communicate the value and impact of their contributions to stakeholders.
  • Neglecting the need to expand knowledge and understanding beyond technical domains into the realm of business operations.
  • Insufficient recognition of the importance of soft skills and the need for their development.
  • Inadequate support or guidance from organizations in transitioning from technical roles to leadership positions.

One of the key reasons I started this site is to help people with precisely these topics.

The Challenges Faced By Those With Low Perceived Competence

Perceived competence and its alignment with actual competence profoundly influence the career trajectory and effectiveness of technical leaders.

A significant gap between how others perceive our abilities and our actual capabilities can lead to various challenges and consequences.

Here are examples of the challenges you should expect to face if you fit into these quadrants of the Competence Matrix:

  • Experience difficulty in implementing desired changes and initiatives.
  • Face limited autonomy and decision-making authority.
  • Often get second-guessed and questioned in their decision-making.
  • Face challenges in securing funding and resources for their ideas and initiatives.
  • Struggle to gain the trust and confidence of team members and leaders.
  • Encounter more resistance and skepticism from colleagues and stakeholders.
  • Feel hindered in their ability to lead and influence others effectively.
  • Experience a lack of support and recognition for their contributions.
  • Encounter barriers in accessing opportunities for career advancement.

Stepping into the Spotlight: Transforming Underrated Talents into Recognized Leaders

So now we've set the scene and explained the concept of perceived vs actual competence.

We've explained why balancing the two is equally important and how most people find themselves as "Underrated Talents" until they take deliberate action.

Now it's time to talk about some things you can read about and implement to move towards becoming a "Recognized Professional".

There are two books I recommend. The first is BRIEF by Joe McCormack, and the second is "Managing the Unmanageable" by Ron Lichty, specifically chapter 6 on managing "up" and "out".

I read the BRIEF book for the first time well after I realized the importance of the concepts it talks about and implemented it myself. Managing the Unmanageable however has had a foundational effect on my approaches.

The BRIEF book provides a framework for clear and concise communication, which will win you supporters (and recognition) within a business. The concept, rather than the framework the book describes, is more important to understand.

The BRIEF book could itself be summarized "briefly" as follows:

  • Have empathy for your reader.
  • Have a mindset that "No one wants to read your sh*t", so make everything you say concise, informative, valuable, and worth their time.
  • Make it immediately obvious what you're talking about from the title, section headers, first paragraph or first slide
  • Get to the point quickly
  • Ask yourself, "What do I know that others need to know"?
  • "How can they know that in the least amount of time possible"?
  • Always have clear solutions, next steps or decisions to be made. If you don't have these things, you're thoughts are not complete or ready to share.
I will have a future post on this site devoted to this topic in more detail. Until then, one example of applying similar concepts to presentations is shown in https://www.gregfreeman.co/powerful-presentations-why-putting-your-conclusion-first-can-make-all-the-difference/

"Managing the Unmanageable" by Ron Lichty contains timeless wisdom and is one of my all-time favourites.

The book appears dated when you start reading the first few chapters, but the good stuff was as relevant then as it is now. Chapter 6 in the book details how to manage "up" (to your manager) and "out" (to your peers) effectively.

"Managing up" refers to how a person manages their relationship with their own manager (or superior). It involves understanding their expectations, priorities, and communication styles and adapting one's approach to align with them. By managing up, technical leaders can build rapport, gain support, and influence decision-making at higher levels of the organization.

Managing is more than just your relationships with direct reports. You need to be managing in all directions.

"Managing out" focuses on relationships and collaborations with peers and colleagues within the organization. It involves fostering effective teamwork, resolving conflicts, and building productive partnerships. Managing out requires strong communication, collaboration, and interpersonal skills to ensure smooth working relationships and the achievement of shared goals.

Focusing on these management relationships will raise your perceived competence, increase your recognition levels and impact and put you in a stronger position for promotions.

Managing "up" and "out" are the conduits you can use to get your messages out and brief communication concepts can help you tailor those messages for impact.


Ignore the gap between actual competence and perceived competence at your peril.

Work hard to make them as equal as possible if you want a fulfilling and rewarding career filled with recognition as a technical leader.

At the same time, make sure there is a strong substance in your actual competence levels. "Perception is Reality", as they say, but you will get found out if you can't ultimately deliver (Don't risk being an "Overrated Pretender" as defined in the Competence Matrix above).

Here is a brief summary of what you need to do to start raising how others perceive your competence (and to become a "Recognized Professional"):

  1. Emphasize Clear and Concise Communication: Deliver clear and concise communication, avoiding jargon or unnecessary complexity. Always offer clear solutions to problems and articulate actionable next steps.
  2. Proactive Communication: Actively communicate your needs, accomplishments and capabilities, clearly stating how these things benefit the organization. If a decision needs to be made, communicate clearly and concisely why.
  3. Focus on Actions, Not Just Words: It requires more than just telling people; it requires tangible actions. Consistently deliver results, unblock other people, take the initiative, and follow through on commitments.
  4. Seek Feedback and Address Areas of Improvement: Identify areas of improvement, embrace constructive criticism and address any gaps in your skill set, working on areas that need development.
  5. Continuous Learning and Skill Development: Stay on top of industry trends, acquire new knowledge, and consistently improve your skills.

In conclusion, as technical leaders, the journey towards balancing perceived and actual competence is crucial for unlocking our full potential and achieving success in our careers. By recognizing the challenges and consequences of a significant gap, embracing strategies to align our competence levels, and continuously striving for growth, we can bridge the divide and emerge as recognized professionals in our field.

May your path be filled with opportunities to showcase your true capabilities, gain the recognition you deserve, and make a lasting impact as a technical leader. Embrace the power of aligning your perceived and actual competence, and let it propel you towards greater influence, meaningful achievements, and a fulfilling career journey.