Myth #1: Technical specialists make lousy managers

October 31, 2018

This is the first in a series on workplace myths, many of which are based on stereotypes – soft female leaders, socially awkward geeks, psychologists obsessed with feelings. Like most stereotypes, there’s generally a grain of truth in them. There’s a reason we talk about German efficiency and Italian style, not the other way round. But stereotypes don’t apply in every case, as I discovered when using the Bavarian rail network this summer (couldn’t even manage a queue for a replacement bus service). It’s the same with workplace myths – something which has some value as a generality can be unhelpful when looking at an individual.

So let’s start with this old chestnut, which I hear all the time in IT, engineering, accountancy, law – never promote your best technical specialists; they make terrible managers. Why might this be true?

1. They can’t manage people

Actually this seems to be the key complaint about specialists. If someone has spent up to 10 years honing – and being rewarded for – their technical excellence, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they haven’t developed an entirely different set of skills the minute you promote them. People management skills need to be learnt. I’d suggest starting with delegation, as that’s often the first bit of management responsibility a specialist gets and one of the main places they go wrong.

It’s true that some people take to people management more naturally than others. But I sense an unspoken assumption that the greater your technical expertise, the less likely you are to have any social skills. This is such a pervasive myth that it’ll be the subject of a later article in this series. Suffice it to say for now, that really knowing your stuff doesn’t automatically mean you’re socially awkward. In my experience, this focus on people management obscures other issues which may hold technical specialists back, such as…

2. They may need structure

Although technical specialists work with complex subjects they often have quite a lot structure to guide their thinking. There may have been taught specific methodologies or have clear procedures or precedents to follow. This isn’t always the case when looking at issues managers deal with, particularly when it comes to strategic thinking. Some technical specialists will  be capable of working in a less structured environment and some will struggle.

3. They may over-emphasise precision

In many technical disciplines, precision is highly valued and rightly so. No one wants to entrust a nuclear power station to an engineer who says “oh that looks OK, give or take…” Often there’s a right answer, which takes skill, technical know-how and ingenuity to work out. Even when there isn’t one right answer, there’s generally a small range of possible answers and people can ‘show their workings’ to justify how they came to a particular conclusion.

This is absolutely not the case with many management decisions. Often managers have to work out the questions for themselves – “Should we develop a new product or invest more in our marketing?” – never mind the answers. There’ll be some information to analyse but the answer won’t just pop out at the end. You have to use your judgement. This takes some getting used to and is particularly difficult for people who fear criticism. If they can’t prove they did the right thing, how do they justify their decisions. In my experience, this is at least as big a hurdle as people management for technical experts moving to management roles.

4. They’re not actually interested

Many technical specialists go into their profession because they enjoy it. Being a systems developer, an engineer or a lawyer may be a huge part of their professional identity, one they may be reluctant to give up. And yet, in many organisations the only way to feel you’re progressing is to move into a management role. Many people find themselves on track for promotion without really thinking about whether it’s what they want. Then they keep getting too involved in the technical stuff because they find it more interesting or they’re unwilling or unable to engage with the messier, less clear cut management issues. Some technical experts can find great satisfaction in broadening their role to encompass responsibility for maintaining technical excellence, exploring trends in their field and developing the next generation of experts. But general management, responsibility for performance and for the commercial aspects of a business is often of little interest.

Undoubtedly some technical specialists overcome all these hurdles and become superb managers. Others don’t. There should be nothing wrong with pursuing a specialist career – one of depth rather than breadth. So if you’re thinking of preparing a specialist for a management role, first check whether they really want to do it. Then try and work out how comfortable they are (or could become) working with less structure and making decisions which require judgement. Then look at how you help them develop their people management skills. And if you’d like any help working any of that out, I’m happy to have a chat:

Photo credit

Argonne National Laboratory

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