What’s the Deal? Why is it So Difficult for IT Technical Experts to Become Leaders and Managers???

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By Robert Byron
December 08, 2020

It’s well documented that making a move from individual contributor to manager and leader of an organization (no matter how small) can be a difficult transition. But why does this move seem especially challenging for IT technical experts? In my current role I have been fortunate enough to have several conversations with CIOs and IT executives around leadership development for their staff. Here are some common themes and advice from these IT leaders for their technical staff moving into leadership and management roles.

Motivation. As an IT expert you need to understand what is involved in the new leadership role and have a genuine desire to take on these responsibilities. New leaders that are truly motivated by developing and mentoring their people, and building a high-performing team tend to have an easier transition. Individuals whose goal is to remain technically hands-on and continue to be the top technical expert will typically gravitate toward the technical work when there are competing management priorities, many times to the detriment of their people and the team. As my colleague Bob Hewes, practice lead for group leadership development says, “moving into management and leadership should be a choice.”

Alignment on expectations. An open dialog between you and your organization on the expectations of the leadership role will help set you up for success. Often there are unrealistic expectations and lack of alignment with the organization on the definition of success. If you enter into a new management role with unrealistic expectations – to continue to be fully hands-on technically, to gain more prestige and personal recognition, more money, and less stress – this can (and will most likely) lead to disappointment and frustration with your new position. The organization will typically expect you, as a new manager, to deliver results through building and running a high-performing team, to think more strategically, wear multiple hats, attend management meetings, and motivate your team.

Skillset. You were likely promoted to a leadership role based on your technical skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, these technical skills are not the same skills necessary to be successful in your new management position. “Leading and managing is a completely different capability set from one’s technical skills and we take that difference for granted,” says Hewes. You will be expected to learn a completely new set of skills, capabilities, behaviors, and approaches for success in your management role. These include: communication, delegation, influencing and motivating others, goal-setting, holding people accountable, and dealing with conflict.

What can you do? It’s clear moving from an IT expert to a new management role can be a difficult change and daunting challenge. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help make this transition smoother. First, you should perform a self-assessment to better understand your motivation to move into management and evaluate if you are ready. If you determine after self-assessment you are ready for management and leadership responsibilities, then you should have a thorough discussion with your manager and leadership team around the role and the expectations. Before moving forward, you should have a clear understanding of what you are walking into. Also, you must be comfortable “letting go” of technical aspects of your current role and be willing to invest that time in your team and develop others to become the IT technical stars. Engaging with a mentor or executive coach is a great investment as the coach or mentor will work closely with you to help guide you through these internal and external conversations as well as give you tools to deal with management challenges as they arise.

While the transition to a leadership role is certainly not easy for the IT expert, current IT executives and leaders who have gone through a similar move recommend proper preparation, self-evaluation and leveraging a coach and/or mentor to smooth out this potentially bumpy transition.

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