It’s probably not surprising that when developing learning interventions to help technical professionals transition into new positions as leaders, much of the development focus is in the soft-skill arena. According to Mary Ann Masarech, director of Employee Alignment Strategies, BlessingWhite, Inc., that’s exactly the case.
BlessingWhite recently surveyed 900 leaders of technical professionals from North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe from a variety of industries and uncovered five challenges that CLOs might want to consider when transitioning technical professionals into efficient managers of other techies and their activities and projects. They include delivering on projects with fewer resources, balancing the team’s coaching needs with individual project responsibilities, keeping up to date on industry advances, developing the skills of technical professionals and developing themselves personally and professionally.
Many of these challenges compete with one another for the new technical leader’s attention. For example, the need to keep up to date with industry advances can be especially problematic because technology changes so quickly. Furthermore, these new technical leaders not only have a team to manage, they have their own projects to bring to fruition. “This is significant for this group because most people who lead technical professionals came up through the ranks of expert roles themselves. It’s painful for them as they’re beginning to lead others,” Masarech explained. “They need to figure out how much knowledge they actually need. They have to be expert enough to lead a team, but they don’t necessarily have to be expert enough to do everything. They’re really struggling to find time to keep up to date.”
Development solutions center on the new technical leader’s need to be a leader of people, not a manager of projects. Masarech said this might seem like common sense, but technical professionals are usually promoted for their technical expertise not for their soft skills or people skills. “They can’t just redouble their effort or work more efficiently,” she explained. “They have to rely on their team members, and that means they have to delegate more, and by delegate we mean guide and direct. It requires them to move out of their comfort zone, invest in upfront conversations and do things like setting goals, explaining the why behind the what to really help their team understand why a project’s important. They need to give feedback. Another point that we found in the findings is they have to understand what makes technical professionals tick.”
In addition to a need for leadership development to enable these leaders to transition into their new roles, technical leaders look to development as a way to motivate and reward their people. For instance, giving their direct reports opportunities to try and get certified in the latest technology can be exciting. “That naturally ties into this need for technical professionals to continue to learn and to stay current and be experts,” Masarech said. “They need to understand what makes their teams a bit different and try to address those special needs. They need to increase their competence in influencing outside of their team. In recent research that we did, the leaders were very concerned about building collaborative relationships in the organization. They need to interact with their internal customers. They need to be able to translate teams’ core capabilities, ideas and accomplishments to non-technical colleagues. They need to increase their comfort level working on the business side, and not just focus on technical expertise. A lot of them are being pulled into conversations about business strategy, and they’re expected to find innovative solutions and be able to explain those.”
Given the clear-cut need for leadership development, Masarech said investing in leadership skills of the leaders of technical professionals makes a lot of business sense. “This group may have a steeper learning curve than leaders in other areas because they’ve been so focused on technical competence and not people skills. There’s definitely a need for leadership training, and I think there’s also the potential to help leaders be more comfortable in influencing skills.”