My partner and I recently launched a research initiative into the challenges that technical professionals face when jumping on the leadership path. We are actively interviewing and surveying professionals in development, engineering, IT and consulting, and drawing upon the considerable experience of many of our long-term associates including-Joe Zurawski, Jerry Deville at Construx, Jack Kalander at Business Objects etc. (By the way, we want your input too…share your perspectives by clicking here and taking our survey!)
While both of us have invested a combined 45 years in and around technology organizations, it has only been in the last few years while researching and publishing Practical Lessons in Leadership and developing the related training programs, that the challenges and pitfalls of becoming a leader in a technical arena have become so crystal clear. As top leaders, we are setting up some of our most valued contributors to fail miserably, and that’s definitely not good.
The all-too-common scenario has the brilliant engineer/developer/IT professional recognizing that they are bumping up against an organization’s ceiling for individual contributor compensation. They’ve likely watched as their friends have moved into management roles, and it is no secret that along with promotion to management comes improved compensation opportunities. The natural response is to walk into their manager’s office, stare him or her in the eye and boldly pronounce that it is time for them to lead a team! Fast forward a few months and a few repeated discussions about leading a team, and the manager, motivated by a fear of losing this valued contributor, acquiesces and the firm has a new manager. From this point on, it’s all downhill.
Our early research and anecdotal discussion feedback shows that:
- Many first-time technical leaders receive little or no developmental support (coaching/mentoring/training) for their transition into leadership.
- Frequently, these competent individual contributors are moving from a peer role to a leadership role–again without the needed training/support to help deal with the additional complexity of a new relationship with long-time associates.
- Many first-time leaders admit that they don’t have clear context for their new role, and tend to spend a lot of time focusing on technical issues instead of leading the team. One early-career IT Manager said it best. "I’m a techie at heart. If faced with a people-problem or a technical problem, I know which way I’m heading." (Hint: he was not heading for the people problem!)
Clearly, these otherwise talented technical professionals don’t immediately realize that the skills that made them successful as an individual contributor are not the skills that they need for success as a leader.
The fallout from misplacing or under-supporting new technical leaders can be significant. The new manager quickly gets frustrated or becomes disillusioned, his or her poor management practices impact the performance and morale of other team-members, productivity and quality can slip and the entire organization suffers as a result. This domino effect is very real and very dangerous to organizational health.
While the research efforts are just beginning, there are 3 obvious opportunities for senior technical leadership to make an immediate improvement in this situation:
- The rationale for pursuing a leadership role is driven by a limited/limiting individual contributor career track. Technical professionals should not be forced to pursue a management role as the primary or only means of advancing in their careers and growing their incomes. Fix this!
- Not everyone should lead! Start applying more rigorous up-front filtering of aspiring leaders. Existing managers/leaders should be trained in how to provide informal leadership opportunities to interested candidates and to ultimately help a candidate determine whether a leadership role is appropriate for them. Of course, existing managers need to learn to filter and say "no" when it makes sense. The existence of a viable individual contributor path will minimize the potential damage from a "no" answer.
- New managers need care and feeding. They should be trained and coached, and they should be on the receiving end of ample effective feedback (positive and constructive). Existing managers need to understand and be accountable for their role in developing new leaders. Anything less is asking for trouble.
Organizations cannot afford to sub-optimize in their technical functions. In a world where IT is increasingly involved as a key enabler of strategy, where development is challenged to pull off heroics on a regular basis and where competitors are waiting to pounce on your every misstep, you cannot allow something as curable as poor leadership development practices to derail your business.
More later as the body of research grows.