From Technical Expert to Manager

Learning Management Skills

Excel as a leader and manager in your new role.

© iStockphoto/Yuri_Accurs

So, you finally earned the promotion you dreamed about. Because of your technical expertise and your ability to reach performance goals consistently, your organization made you a manager.

You're thrilled with the idea of advancing your career... until reality hits you. After a few weeks, you start to realize that you're spending very little time doing what you used to do best – that is, using your technical skills. Instead, you're spending a lot of your time dealing with "people problems," navigating office politics, and coordinating projects and team members.

You knew things would be different, but it's exhausting compared with your previous role. Have you made a mistake in accepting the promotion? What can you do to improve your new situation?

Any management promotion can be a challenge, but it's especially hard on people with strong technical skills, but who have little or no management experience. In this article, we'll explore how to make the transition, and what you can do to excel in your new role. We'll also include links to several other resources that can help you strengthen the skills you need for success.

Management Challenges

Technical experts are often promoted because they have recognized knowledge and skills in their field. Whether it's IT, finance, sales, or marketing, they know their job very well. After all, that's what got them noticed!

The problem is that organizations often promote people based on these technical skills, not on their management skills. And many organizations offer very little support to new managers. This is why it's up to you to teach yourself the skills you need!

You first need to recognize that your technical knowledge may not help much in your new management role. Why? Because instead of just focusing on your own skills and successes, you now have to focus on the skills and successes of your team. Your mindset has to change.

This is where many technical managers make their biggest mistakes. Instead of paying attention to the "people aspect" of their new role, they continue to do what they've always done: work on their own projects and technical skills. But if you ignore your team and their needs, you're going to alienate them quickly.

Another challenge is that your identity in the organization changes. You may have been a superstar in your previous role, but now you're starting at the beginning again. It can be difficult for new managers to cope with this "identity demotion."

To fight this, focus on gaining some early wins – small victories that you can achieve quickly – in your new position. This will give you, and your new team, a great sense of accomplishment, as well as the motivation to keep moving forward. To help you identify opportunities for early wins, see our article on Pareto Analysis  .

Skills You Need

The good news is that you can succeed – and succeed spectacularly – in your management role. To do so, however, you must learn a new set of skills, including:

  • Delegation – As a manager, you must know how to delegate   tasks to your team effectively. This will keep you from spending time doing things that should no longer be your responsibility.
  • Briefing – You need to keep your team up to date on their progress, what you expect from them, and what will happen in the future.
  • Motivation – Your team is now your responsibility. This means that you must keep them motivated   and moving forward. Our article Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors   will teach you how to discover what truly motivates   your people.
  • Communication – In your previous role, good communication might have been helpful, but not vital. But now, as a manager, the ability to communicate well is essential to your success.
  • Discipline – At some point, you'll probably have to discipline someone on your team. Whether a team member is breaking rules, under-performing, or upsetting others, it's up to you to restore peace. Knowing how to discipline effectively   and diplomatically is key to keeping your team's trust and respect.
  • Recruitment – If your team is changing or expanding, then you'll have to hire new people  , but finding the right new people can be difficult. Our Recruiting Skills Bite-Sized Training session will help you get better results with your recruitment efforts.

Tips for Making the Transition to Manager

  • Do a personal SWOT analysis   – Make a list of what you must improve to be a better manager for your team. Many managers let others assess their skills, and then wait until their performance review to discover what skills they lack. Don't make this mistake – spend time now identifying your weaknesses, so that you can start improving on them immediately.
  • Stay away from technical work – Resist the temptation to get involved with technical projects that aren't your responsibility. Yes, you probably enjoy this type of work and want to feel successful doing something you know well, but it's now your team's responsibility. Spending too much time doing technical work will only hold you back as a manager. Sure, it's good to pitch in when you can, but make sure that you do the managing part of your role first.
  • Find a mentor – Look for someone in your organization who has made a transition similar to yours. A mentor   can offer you some great advice on succeeding in your new role, and help you avoid some of the mistakes that he or she has made.
  • Meet with every team member – Make it a priority to meet with everyone on your team personally. Find out what interests and motivates them, and check that they have everything they need to be happy and successful in their role. This shows that you're taking an interest in them, and it helps you get to know the people you're managing.
  • Find out what your team expects from you – These expectations are often unspoken. Our article on The Psychological Contract   will help you learn how to discover these hidden expectations.
  • Learn one skill at a time – Acquiring a whole new set of skills for your new management position can be overwhelming. Don't try to learn everything at once. Focus on one skill at a time, so that you can learn each skill well.

Tip:

You can learn more valuable tips for making the transition from technical expert to manager with our Book Insight on What Got You Here Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.

Key Points

Making the transition from technical expert to manager can be challenging, especially if you have little or no management experience.

Look at the key skills you need to be an effective manager, and focus on learning one new skill at a time. Do a personal SWOT analysis, and try to find a mentor who has experienced the same transition. Also, don't do tasks associated with your previous role – your job now is to manage your team.

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Comments (6)
  • Rachel wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    There are many challenges to overcome when you're promoted into a management position from a technical role.

    Make sure that you're a success when you make this transition, with this week's Featured Favorite.

    Rachel
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi opgo,
    Thanks for sharing your views ... and you are so right that many companies do little in the ways of developing technical career streams other than lateral moves and different projects!

    I would like to think that times are changing for technical people and that employers are starting to recognize their strength lies in their technical skills not necessarily their management / leadership skills. Additionally, that they might not aspire to management / leadership positions!

    Maybe companies need more people like you who speak up and 'champion the cause' for developing actual plans and career paths for technical people! Maybe even map out what the different steps could be!

    Midgie
  • opgo wrote Over a month ago
    The development of a technical career path is one that few companies (particularly in Australia) achieve - if they consider it at all. This is unfortunate, as technical staff are those who create value for the company - provide the service, develop the products and do those things that customers are willing to pay for.

    A limiting mindset in creating a technical career path is the notion that the leader should be paid more than his staff. This thinking ignores the realities of value creation and underestimates the importance of the technical staff.

    A recognised series of roles (cadet, engineer, senior engineer, system specialist, system owner, development specialist) that suit your industry & specialisation can be matched to management levels and technical responsibilities - reviews, technical approvals and such like. The administrative and managerial functions can be taken by people interested in that strand. As there is no technical content to their work, their span of control can be greater. Fewer managers means less non-value adding overhead.

    The process of technical review provides closer mentoring of new technical staff - rather than these people filling the gaps left as the best technicians become the new managers. This results in more skilled techs, fewer mistakes and faster time to market. Also, more satisfied techs stay with the company, keeping valuable skills in-house.

    The savings generated more than pays for the increased wages bill.

    I have been in companies that claim to have a technical career path, which consists of moving people sideways, broadening their experience without increasing responsibility, authority or renumeration. These schemes miss important elements of motivation, and tended to increase dissatisfaction rather than reduce it.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Zuni,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It must have been quite challenging to take on the role with little support or training ... yet, good for you for developing the skills on your own. Also, good for you to have taken the time reflect on what your strengths and interests are, and have found a more suitable role!

    It is so important that people recognize that career progression and career development doesn't necessarily mean that it's one step up the ladder from a technical position to a team leader/manager role. It could be simply a question of taking on new responsibilities or new projects, or even doing the same job but in a different department or industry.

    I just wish more organizations would also recognize that and provide opportunities to grow and develop in ways other than stepping up the ladder!

    Midgie
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks for sharing your experiences zuni - I think that is a very necessary message for people to hear. We have a good self assessment on the motivation to lead that I encourage people to complete if/when they are considering (or being considered for) a management position.

    I personally believe it is far better to have a job that you enjoy than buy into the idea that to be successful one needs to move up the corporate ladder. Success comes in a variety of forms and as individuals we need to find the right success equation for ourselves.

    Cheers!
    Dianna
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    The transition from technical individual contributor to supervisor/first line manager is challenging and one where many people stumble. Most people are put into the role without any formal training and left to their own devices to figure out. This strategy can be disastrous as it can lead to a decline in team productivity, and worse, good employees may choose to leave the organization. The transition to manager is the foundation for all other promotions (director, vice, president, etc.).

    It is important to ask yourself if you truly want to lead others and whether you are committed to invest the time and energy to become a good manager. In my experience, many people take on a managerial role because it is a promotion and not because it is necessarily something they want to do.

    I am someone who was promoted to lead a team. I was assigned the role; no one asked if I was interested in becoming a manager. I also had no say in the team I would lead or the members of that team. The majority of the team were known 'problem" employees. I was provided no training or direction - just thrown in. I was determined to be a good leader, did the research and applied solid team leadership skills. In the end I developed into a good manager, but after much sole searching, decided that I would be much happier as an individual contributor and found a challenging assignment that did not include leading a team of people.

    There are a number of issues with my scenario that should raise red flags for anyone seeking a manager role. I would use my experience as an example of how not to promote a technically proficient, high potential, employee.

    I would also add one more critical skill set to the mix--developing talent. Next to managing performance, developing the capability of team members is a top driver of employee engagement and leads to substantial increases in employee performance improvement.

    Zuni

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