Why is it So Difficult for Technical Experts to Become Leaders & Managers?

*Updated August 2023

In today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, technical experts and subject matter specialists play a pivotal role in driving innovation and problem-solving within organizations. However, transitioning from a technical expert to a managerial leader within an organization poses unique hurdles. In this blog, we delve into the complexities and difficulties faced by technical experts as they transition into managerial roles, and explore strategies to help them succeed in their pursuit of becoming effective leaders within their respective companies.

Technical vs. management career path

When it comes to career advancement, professionals often find themselves at a crossroads, faced with two distinct paths: the technical path and the management path. Each option offers unique opportunities and challenges, catering to different skill sets and aspirations. Let’s explore the differences and similarities between these two paths.

Technical career track

The technical career path is designed for individuals who excel in specialized skills and enjoy hands-on work. Professionals on this trajectory often become subject matter experts in their field, continuously honing their technical knowledge and expertise. They take pride in solving complex problems, developing innovative solutions, and pushing the boundaries of their domain. In a technical career, growth typically comes through mastery, as individuals progress from entry-level roles to senior positions or even specialized leadership roles.

Management career track

The management career track, on the other hand, is geared toward individuals who possess (or want to develop) strong leadership and interpersonal skills. Aspiring managers seek opportunities to lead and motivate teams, driving collective success and overseeing the strategic direction of projects and initiatives. Managers are responsible for nurturing talent, promoting collaboration, and making decisions that align with organizational goals. Growth in a management career often involves moving up through managerial ranks, such as becoming a team lead, department head, or even a C-level executive.

Factors that make the transition difficult

As you can see, different people and different personalities might be better fits for one versus the other. 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 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 technical staff. Here are some common themes that often cause friction in this transition, and advice from these leaders to help ease the process and change.

Motivation

As an expert, you need to understand what is involved in the new leadership role and have a genuine desire and drive 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 technical work that fulfills this. And when there are competing management priorities, this often is 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.” In other words, forcing someone to fill a role they’re not motivated about will lead to them (and those around them) struggling.

Alignment on expectations

An open dialog between the organization and its experts on the expectations of a leadership role will help set them up for success. Often there are unrealistic expectations and a lack of alignment with the organization on the definition of success. If an SME enters 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 most likely will) lead to disappointment and frustration with the new position.

The organization will typically expect new managers to deliver results through building and running a high-performing team, to think more strategically, wear multiple hats, attend management meetings, and motivate their team. So making sure that everyone is on the same page (whether through compromise or not), is critical to making the transition from expert to manager more smooth.

Skillset

Many experts are likely promoted to leadership roles based on their technical skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, these technical skills are not the same skills necessary to be successful in most new management positions. “Leading and managing is a completely different capability set from one’s technical skills and we take that difference for granted,” says Hewes. New managers will be expected to learn a completely new set of skills, capabilities, behaviors, and approaches for success in the management role. These include communication, delegation, influencing and motivating others, goal-setting, holding people accountable, and dealing with conflict. For those not willing to adapt and improve their skills in these areas, managing will be more difficult and it will hurt the organization’s long-term talent development due to poor management under this person.

Should you become a manager or stay technical?

It’s clear moving from a technical expert to a new management role can be a difficult change and daunting challenge. Ultimately, the decision between the technical career path and management track depends on individual strengths, interests, and long-term goals (and a company’s internal mobility capabilities). Some professionals thrive in technical roles, finding fulfillment in solving intricate challenges and staying deeply involved in their field. Others are drawn to leadership and envision themselves guiding teams and shaping organizational strategies. Here are some tips to come to a decision and ensure the process is as smooth as possible:

First, experts should perform a self-assessment to better understand their motivation to move into management and evaluate if they are ready. If they determine after self-assessment they’re ready for management and leadership responsibilities, there should be a thorough discussion between manager and SME about the role and the expectations. Before moving forward, they should have a clear understanding of what they are walking into. Also, the experts must be comfortable “letting go” of technical aspects of their current roles and be willing to invest that time in their team and develop others to become the new technical stars. Engaging with a mentor or executive coach is a great investment, as the coach or mentor will work closely with them to help guide through these internal and external conversations, as well as give them tools to deal with management challenges as they arise.

How Keystone Partners can help

While the transition to a leadership role is certainly not easy for many technical experts, current 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.

At Keystone Partners, our talent development and leadership development services are designed to empower professionals across diverse industries and regions nationwide. With our broad expertise and personalized approach, we provide the guidance and resources needed to navigate the path to effective leadership. Together, let’s shape a successful future for you and your team.

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