Developing Tech Employees Into Tech Managers: Finding The Path To Success
07/06/2020

Corry
Robertson

Developing Tech Employees Into Tech Managers:  Finding The Path To Success

Would you hand over your books to an accountant who was a fantastic architect and got a promotion over to accounting? 

Would you consult with a medical doctor who got the job because she was a great engineer?

Would you take skiing lessons from a world class swimmer who had never seen a mountain, let alone snow?

Of course not. 

We can all agree that would be reckless and dangerous – not to mention ridiculous. To be good at any role, it takes formal training to develop the necessary skill set. 

Why then do companies routinely promote someone into management with no training? 

I see this over and over again. Technical leadership positions are filled based on technical merits without any formal leadership or management training. But having great technical skills does not make a person great or even decent at managing others. 

The skill set to manage people is completely different. It’s an entirely different job.

Houston, we have a problem

The #1 problem I help companies with is developing the leadership skills of their tech managers AFTER team performance and employee engagement have derailed. Turnover is often high, and HR professionals and CXO’s call me in to help them deal with the “problem” manager or situation.

Engagement and turnover are a problem because people don’t quit their jobs or even their companies, they quit their manager. You’ve heard that many times, and it bears repeating because it’s true.

The company executives are often perplexed about what makes these managers so unbearable that their employees would go to all the trouble of leaving their company and the work family they’ve come to love.

Why would they go out to find a new job and get established somewhere else? 

It’s often because their current manager makes it impossible for them to do their jobs.

How to spot managerial incompetence

Managerial incompetence can hide behind high technical expertise in top performers, and it can be hard to separate the two. 

Bad managers aren’t bad people, they just don’t have the skills to lead, and their behaviour drives people away.

Here’s how to spot managerial incompetence in otherwise excellent technical leaders:

  • They demand endless re-dos and revisions on work because they can’t make themselves understood in communicating goals and expectations
  • They either micromanage or they ‘dump’ because they can’t delegate or manage workloads
  • Their employees feel stifled, underutilized and career stagnant because the manager doesn’t have the skills to develop talent or lead performance improvement
  • They are perceived as harsh, impatient and critical by their direct reports because they don’t know how to give constructive feedback
  • They tend to let issues fester, become toxic and cause long term damage to relationships on the team because they don’t know how to tackle and handle difficult conversations.
  • There can be chaos or burnout because they’re unable to lead change or reinvention
  • Their employees feel like they they are walking in a minefield of unpleasant traits like micromanaging, indecisiveness, lying, rudeness, favoritism, moodiness, being aloof or detached because the manager can’t manage their own stress and emotions

From me to we – where to start

Just because an employee has had a change in title they are not all of a sudden a manager.  Just as getting great at tech takes training, time and practice to master so too do leadership and manager skills.

Developing leadership and managerial skills in your high potential employees can begin when you have two main elements in place.

  1. The company culture needs to support the learning and practice phases of acquiring the new mindset and skillset.  (Read more: How to create winning conditions for leadership training success
  2. The new manager needs to be motivated to learn and practice leadership skills.

The second point can’t be ignored – does the person really want to learn the necessary skills to be a manager? It’s a whole new branch in their career and it will take time, courage, humility and practice. 

employee receiving promotion in office

When employees don’t want to manage people

Promotion to management is often seen as a reward and it comes with more money, prestige and authority – all very desirable things.

But what happens when your HIPO is just not interested? Let’s be honest, some brilliant tech people don’t want to deal with other people. It’s important to respect their boundaries and still reward their contribution.

There are other ways to reward top performers with better money and status when they don’t want to learn how to manage people:

Non people-facing rewards 

Some work rewards can be given that require minimal interaction with other people. 

1. Promotion to Higher SME Status: Let them get better at their subject matter expertise by giving them more opportunity to develop their technical skills and add depth to their knowledge

AND  / OR

2. More complexity: Some people want to develop a wider range of technical skills and add more breadth to their knowledge

People-facing rewards

Some roles can’t be done without interacting with others, be they other employees, management teams and or clients. These roles don’t require that they manage others, but they do require people skills such as communication, interpersonal skills and business etiquette. 

This does not alleviate the need for leadership training and development but it does lesson it to some degree.  Some ideas for rewards here could be:

  1. Higher status projects: give top performers higher profile or longer term projects
  2. Training and mentoring: some top performers will enjoy and be good at imparting their knowledge to others
  3. Client liaison: some SME’s will be well suited to take care of accounts and communicate directly with clients.

Putting Your Leadership Development Program In Place

So your employee is open to the idea of managing people – great! Once you have company culture and personal motivation nailed down, you need to implement the right learning and development strategy that fits your organization.

The key to success is that both you and your employee approach leadership understanding that leadership skills are not just common sense, something you are born with, or something you either have or you don’t.

Leadership skills are taught, and can be learned by any motivated employee.

It’s likely you either need to provide a business case for training to the decision makers in your organization, or as a CXO you need to prove the ROI to yourself.  As Michael Beer says in his article “Why Leadership Training Fails – And What To Do About It”

Corporations are victims of the great training robbery. American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.

Decades of research has proven that the most effective methodology is based on the principle of microlearning sessions interspersed with private coaching sessions that lead to the adoption of good habits and long lasting performance improvement. This is the methodology we use at The Coaching Academy for Leaders.

The training program that you select has to be complete and robust. A few days away at a learning retreat or a few sessions online is not going to cut it. 

Training sessions must be spread out over a longer period of time so as to increase the adoption and implementation rate, as well as your ROI.

When you look for an integrative approach that layers theory, participant engagement and accountability you can produce high performance results. 

Adding in a robust assessment and measurement strategy in order to track progress and measure results is the final key to visibly understanding and proving your return on investment to yourself and your stakeholders.

Conclusion

“Soft skills are the most common things tech workers lack,” according to Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA. “Coming up in tech, individuals often work on their own or in very small teams on short task oriented projects. They don’t always get the experience of leadership, cross discipline teamwork, building consensus, listening for understanding, and developing written communications.”

Tech workers need solid soft skills or they will never succeed as managers.  When highly skilled technical employees become untrained managers, they drive your employees out the door directly to the competition, often taking clients with them.

The path to success for helping tech employees become great tech managers comes by promoting a clear track to soft skill training, development and practice that sets your company apart as one that has an effective organizational culture.

Leadership training programs are an essential part of any tech organization’s success plan.  If you’d like to learn more about how your organization can benefit from a custom built plan that addresses the specific needs of your company, get in touch!

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Author:  Corry Robertson

Sought-after tech industry culture expert, Corry Robertson has been helping leaders turbocharge employee retention and performance for over 20 years.

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