It is 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. Perhaps leadership development isn’t as widely talked about in the technical field as is in a field such as communications or business. Why does this move seem especially challenging for IT experts?
IT professionals who are truly motivated to become new leaders 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 typically will gravitate toward the technical work when there are competing management priorities—many times to the detriment of their people and the team.
In my current role, I’ve had the opportunity 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 technical staff considering moving into leadership and management roles.
1. First and foremost, perform a self-assessment.
It is clear that 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. Asking questions and pausing for self-reflection around your willingness to let go of some of the hands-on technical responsibilities, your interest in coaching and mentoring others, and expectations of what you believe a successful leadership role looks like is a good start. Also, digging into truly understanding if a management role is where you want your career to go is important.
In many cases, people move into management because they believe this is the only way to advance their careers and grow financially. This is not the case today, as there are often several different paths a technical expert can take that do not require formal management responsibilities—technical professionals can move up in an organization and increase their paycheck. Investing a little time and effort upfront in asking yourself these questions and gaining some self-awareness can help you avoid a possible career misstep.
If you determine after self-assessment that you are ready for management and leadership responsibilities, set up a thorough discussion with your manager and leadership team around the role and expectations. Before moving forward, you should have a clear understanding of what you are walking into. 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 way to transition, 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.
2. Align on expectations.
An open dialog between you and the organization on the expectations of a leadership role will help set you up for success. Often there are unrealistic expectations and a 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 typically will 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.
A discussion with your manager and organizational leaders defining the short-term and long-term goals, what success will look like in this new position, what is necessary to achieve this success, and the resources available to you to reach these goals will help to align expectations on both sides.
3. Broaden your skill set.
You likely were 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. 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. In your new management position, your technical skills most likely will still be relevant and used to complete some tasks; however, to be successful in this role, you will need to work through your team to accomplish organizational goals.
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.
As we move further into 2021 and the COVID-19 pandemic remains with us, leadership across all disciplines is critical. If successful with this transition into a management role, you will have an opportunity to make a difference with your team. In your new role, you will be uniquely positioned to help guide your organization through this crisis. If you succeed, your team will be better equipped to weather the storm and be well-positioned to capitalize on emerging opportunities once it’s over.