Mastering the Transition From Technician to Technical Manager

By: Bill Handschin

If you talk to any information technology (IT) or research and development (R&D) professional, they'll smile when you say this: The complaint from business is, "The work is always late, and it's always over budget." When you ask a technology company's executives, managers or human resources vice president, "Would you like to get more work done on time and on budget?" "Would you like to start seeing results instead of hearing excuses?" The answer is always a resounding, "Yes!"

So where is the disconnect? That's a loaded question, and it often comes down to this: A technician was hired or promoted into a supervisory or managerial position and the decision was based on performance in his or her current technical position. What follows is a painful struggle to figure out how to operate in the business world, which is totally different than the technological world.

At every level of management, new positions have different skill and ability requirements. To move from one level to the next is not just more of the same, it is a qualitative difference. In technical fields, this gap is even larger - the knowledge, skills, abilities and interest requirements differ greatly from the role of individual contributor to the role of manager. Along with the differences in skills is a very different culture.

The risk that technology companies face is very real: It is extremely expensive to make the wrong hiring decision. If you hire the wrong person into a management role, you will not only disrupt the work, it will take you several months to realize it was the wrong hire, and several more months to replace the manager. It can easily cost you an amount between a year-and-a-half to four years of the ineffective manager's salary to correct the mistake. Thoughtful assessment, selection and training can save your company a hefty sum in the long run.

Let us examine the challenges of hiring or promoting a technically trained person to supervise or manage a technical department, and discuss the assessment, coaching and developmental strategies to ensure their success.

Qualitative Transition, Not Quantitative
I like to use this analogy: When sales people are promoted into sales management, they are still in the same culture - the sales culture. When technical people are promoted to management, they must move from the technical culture to the very different - and contrasting - business culture. They must now operate in two different worlds - the technical world and the business world - and successfully negotiate the inevitable and ongoing conflicts between the two cultures. In The Leadership Pipeline, authors Charan, Drotter and Noel discuss the transition from one level of management to the next as a passage. "Each passage represents a major change in job requirements that translates to new skill requirements, new time horizons and applications, and new work values."

The first passage, they say, is from managing self to managing others. "Though this might seem like an easy, natural leadership passage, it's often one where people trip. The highest-performing people, especially, are reluctant to change; they want to keep doing the activities that made them successful. As a result, people make the job transition from individual contributor to manager without making a behavioral or value-based transition. In effect, they become managers without accepting the requirements."

The Nature of Technicians & Managers
They are two complete opposites on the spectrum. First, it's important to gain an understanding of what makes technical people tick. Individuals who pursue technical degrees and careers tend to have a common set of natural likes, dislikes, interests and modes of operation, and managers have a completely opposite set. Technicians tend to have a bias toward objective measurement, they tend to be objective rather than subjective, and they are trained to always seek the correct, factual answer, even to the point it might paralyze them in allowing them to move to the next task. People get into a technical field because they like it and have a strong personal interest. They commit to years of expensive training in order to become a professional in the field in which they're practicing, and they strive to stay current in all the new and interesting topics; that's where their identity is. Technologists as introverts People tend to go into technology because they're better at dealing with things or ideas rather than with people. They tend to be poor delegators because they are used to working alone. They have their own little world and their own defined tasks that they enjoy doing, and in which they are proficient. Technologists don't like to engage in the day-to-day negotiating and compromising that organizations depend on to get things done. They talk about it as "politics" and generally want nothing to do with it.

Managers are the opposite. Effective managers must often make decisions without all the facts at hand. They're capable of strong intuitive judgments. In business, you need to keep things moving along and make decisions now. Even if it's based on partial information and it's not perfect, you need to go ahead; you can make it better later. You must make decisions in the best interest of the organization, where lost opportunities are often more expensive than an imperfect decision. The obligation of managers is to the business, not their technical field. Technical managers must shift their alliance to the organization rather than paying attention to technical details. This can be extremely difficult for technologists. Managers need to be skilled interpersonally because they must accomplish tasks by working through others. That means being skilled at working with people individually as well as within groups. Managers do not do the work themselves. They must let go and delegate the work to others and be judged on the results accomplished by the team. Managers need strong interpersonal skills to participate in the negotiating, compromising and "wheeling and dealing" that are the lifeblood of organizational life. At the interface between technical and business arenas, they must deal successfully with constant conflict. These are skills that most technical people are not trained or experienced in, and typically do not like.

Technical Management Requires a Paradigm Shift
So what does a technical expert need to learn to be successful as a manager? Basically, they must turn their whole world upside down. When sales producers transition to sales management, they must learn: now they're a trainer or coach instead of a producer, they're responsible for holding other people accountable - others do the work, and their loyalty must shift from their own individual sales goals to whatever the company wants them to do.

For the technical person, that's just the beginning. Technicians moving into management must possess, or be willing (and able) to learn, all of the skills described in the previous section, plus how to effectively bridge the gap between the business world and the technical world. They must learn how to help people on both sides of the fence understand what the issues are and how to go about resolving them.
There is another important caveat: They have to be good enough in the technical arena to be credible in the eyes of the people they're supervising. That doesn't mean they have to be the best expert. They must be an effective manager of technical people.

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