Some time several years ago, someone asked me if I would ever consider leaving a technical role and moving into more of a management or leadership position. At the time, I thought the idea crazy; why would I give up the kind of deep, intriguing technical work I so richly enjoyed for a job that would involve at least some level of administrative overhead? I loved working through tough technical challenges, solving problems, and, as a side gig even, writing about what I learned. I felt comfortable where I was, and I had no intention to try anything else.
Then, as often happens, an opportunity arose. A new group was being formed within my organization, one that would face some unique challenges. I realized that I had a choice: I could either apply for, and possibly end up leading the new team, or I could do nothing and would almost certainly find myself as a member of it. After some consideration, I chose the former option, and, gratefully, was given the opportunity to lead the group.
While I knew of the challenges I would face from the perspective of the unique situation the team would be in, I had no idea of the hurdles I would face personally as I transitioned from the role of an individual contributor to that of a leader. I had held a low level management role prior to this, but in retrospect it had very little in comparison to my current role (the prior one was in retail management, a very different situation than managing a technical team). Now, a year and change removed from that shift in responsibility, I thought it would be useful to look back and try and glean some wisdom from what was, without a doubt, the toughest year of my professional career. Partly, that difficulty was due to the technical and logistical challenges the team faced; however it was absolutely made tougher by the personal and mental barriers I met (many of which were at least partially of my own doing). Managing people requires an entirely different set of skills and mindset shift from that of an individual contributor, a lesson I learned, quite frankly, the hard way.
I put this here, not only for my own good, but because I sincerely hope that others who are facing similar transitions in their own career might learn from my own experience. I don’t regret the choice I made in any way, and have ultimately found the job to be incredibly rewarding. Here’s hoping my top three lessons learned helps others achieve the same transition with far less suffering than I did.
Managing People Isn’t Like Managing Computers
I’ve managed large environments throughout my career in technology, so when I say I know that managing computers can be challenging I mean it. But as a leader, we aren’t paid to manage computers, or even technology for that matter; we’re paid to manage people. And managing people is an entirely different test than managing even the toughest, most demanding of technologies.
When it comes down to it, computers will, all things being equal, do exactly what you tell them to. No more, no less. Sure, we sometimes may tell them to do the wrong things, or the program that we use may not correctly carry out the thing we ask it to do, but ultimately technology is just muscle that we leverage to get our work done. When it doesn’t work, we can strong-arm our way through it, be it by getting the people who wrote the software to help us, by using the power of the Internet to locate answers to our questions, or even by purchasing new technology to replace the one that isn’t working.
When it comes to people problems, things aren’t so easy. People are flawed, messy, and difficult. They will have trouble understanding what you are asking them to do, they will ask a thousand questions, and they will sometimes flat out refuse to carry out what you are telling them to do. Sure, you can be a tyrant and order folks around, but that’s going to cost you in the long term, both in terms of your own health and the health of your team. Unlike technology, you can’t simply rip out a piece of a person’s personality because it doesn’t fit with what you need from them; instead, you have to work with them to improve themselves, and learn to leverage their individual strengths to best execute the mission of the team. This takes patience, deliberate action, and a whole lot of listening; three skills that are often times lacking in a typical engineer type.
If we’re going to be successful as leaders, we have to learn how to work with people in ways that we never needed to before, rather than trying to treat them like the computers we’re so used to dealing with.
- Make it a deliberate practice to learn how to listen more effectively. This can be broken down into small, practical skills, such as:
- Do not speak over someone. Wait until they have stopped speaking, count to three, then begin speaking.
- Before giving your own opinion, make sure you understand what the other person has said by repeating it back to them in your own words. Repeat until they agree you’ve heard them properly.
- For Heaven’s sake, do not use any kind of technology while someone is talking to you. Nothing kills a conversation faster than someone seeing you pull out your phone and start looking at Twitter while they are talking to you.
- Read books on how to influence and lead people, such as the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Extreme Ownership, or The Five Dysfuntions of a Team.
- Go to this section of the Manager Tools website, go to the “Management Basics” section, and listen to each and every episode listed there. Seriously, do it now. This podcast has been one of the key reasons why I’ve been reasonably successful in my transition from a technical role into a manager. They do an amazing job of breaking down the required skills into discrete measurable actions.
Your Technical Skills WILL Fade, and That’s Okay
If you’ve been promoted to a leadership / managerial role, chances are that you excelled in your previous technical position. A large part of that was likely because you took extreme pride in keeping up your skills and staying abreast of industry trends and new technologies. You probably spent hours working through various scenarios, constructed elaborate lab setups, and maybe even wrote some technical articles. And if you’re at all like me, you enjoyed it all very much!
Here’s the bad news: as a leader, you’re technical skills have to take a back seat to those of your team and the skills required to lead them. Managers and leaders are not paid to produce on an individual basis, but to ensure that their teams produce as a whole. As such, your priority has to be giving your team the tools they need to succeed and coaching them through challenges. This does not mean that when things get hard, you roll up your sleeves and take over! As someone who is a natural problem solver, this is an automatic tendency for me. When I see my team struggling, or someone isn’t moving a task along as fast as I’d like, my instinct is to push them out of the way and get it done myself. The thing is, that’s bad for two important reasons: first, no matter what your directs say, it will give them the impression that you don’t trust them to handle problems on their own; second, it stunts the growth of our directs’ skills, because they aren’t given a chance to struggle and learn new things. When we give in to our inner micro-manager and take over in challenging situations, it may lessen our inner angst in the short term, but in the long term it will only lead to the team becoming too dependent on us. Take it from someone who has struggled mightily with this, take the tough road now and your future self will thank you when you are able to disconnect and relax on vacation.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean we should be completely lackadaisical or hands off either. When things hit the fan, and our team is struggling to keep their heads above water, what they require from us is **leadership. We must provide a calm voice, asking probing questions to get to the root of the issues at hand, while gently guiding the team towards resolution. When in doubt, I’ve found that the best approach is actually quite simple: ask the team how you can best help them. Sometimes that might mean ordering food and making sure the basic needs are taken care of. Other times, it might mean shielding them from other incoming requests, so they can focus solely on the most pressing issue in front of them with complete concentration. It might even mean that they need your technical experience or specialized skill set, but let them make that request rather than assuming up front that the only way to resolve a tricky situation is for you to start getting your hands dirty.
- Make a list of the scenarios in which you feel that you will need to intervene due to things like skill gaps on your team. For example, as a former DBA, I am going to have a strong inclination to get into the details when it comes to managing SQL Server.
- Make a series of “If / Then” plans on how you will handle these various scenarios in advance. Research has shown that this is an extremely effective way to enable behavior change in people. If you’re going to break old habits around getting into the trenches, you’re going to need every tool you can get.
- Keep track of times when you truly had to intervene at the request of your team, so that you can learn from them and help your team to grow to the point where you can truly focus on leadership skills.
- If keeping your technical skills at least somewhat up to date is truly important to you, consider blocking out some time on your calendar each week to brush up. It’s fine to do this, so long as you don’t let your leadership duties and skills take a back seat.
Be Willing to LET GO
If you are coming from the position of a highly skilled technical resource, chances are that you have very strong opinions about how work should be carried out. Speaking personally, I had exacting standards around every aspect of how my SQL Server instances were managed, right down to how the work should be carried out. This was a good thing when it was my work to do, because it ensured consistent results.
At the same time, as a leader, forcing my team to do things the exact way I would have done it is inviting conflict. Think about it: if your boss came to do, asked you to do something, then proceeded to insist that you do it only in the precise way they would do it, how are you likely to feel? You’d likely get frustrated, discouraged (because it’s obvious that your boss doesn’t trust you to get the job done), and micro-managed. All of these will lead to poor team chemistry and lessened productivity.
I get it: you are a meticulous person and one of the reasons why you are in this position is likely because of that and the resulting quality of work you produced. When we see people doing things in a way different from how we’d like, even if we know the results are going to be the same (but especially where that isn’t entirely clear), anxiety arising is a natural result. But just as in the previous scenario, simply because we’re anxious doesn’t mean we should jump in and enforce our own views.
A good leader sets the target for their team, makes sure they clearly understand where they need to be, then steps back and lets the team figure out how to get there. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t provide input, especially when asked. Rather, again as mentioned previously, let your team come to you, rather than prematurely pushing your own opinions down. Like it or not, even if you don’t intend this to be the result, simply speaking your mind carries far more weight when you wield the power to affect people’s paychecks.
- Instead of focusing on process, focus primarily on outcome. Set the targets that you want your people to hit, but let them decide how to do it.
- When you see potential issues arising with the approach taken by your team, rather than immediately overrule them, ask them pointed questions that illustrate your areas of concern, and see how they respond. With this approach, one of several things will happen: either (a) they will already have thought of your concerns and have solutions in mind, (b) they will be able to work through your concerns and propose solutions, or (c) they may ask for your help in determining how best to handle the problems you’ve raised. Either way, it’s a win for the team and your concerns get addressed.
Shifting from the role of an individual contributor to that of a leader and manager is not an easy transition to make. All one needs to do to realize this is search the Internet for stories of failed promotions, and more than ample examples will be easily found. Many who are incredible in a technical role are thrust into leadership positions because of their success in producing high quality work, but without careful consideration and planning, such moves are at a high risk of failure. I learned the lessons I laid out here over a year of struggle and difficulty, and truthfully I still have a long way to go in my journey as a leader of a technical team.
Before closing, there is one point which I believe needs to be explicitly stated: there is no shame in deciding, after a time in a leadership role, that you would prefer to step down and return to a role more focused on individual production. For some, even if we are capable of learning the skills of leadership (and I believe that most everyone is), we may simply not enjoy the necessary work, and that’s okay. Some may say to give up a promotion is a foolish act; I say, if it makes you happy, or you find that the stress of adapting to the new role is taking a toll on you, then there is certainly nothing wrong with taking that path. And despite our fears, in most cases a supportive leader will understand such a request and work with you to make accommodations, especially if your value to the organization is well recognized. This doesn’t mean the decision should be made lightly, and I do believe one should give the opportunity to move into a leadership role a thorough and full trial before choosing to walk away. It will be hard, and there will be difficulty, but when you see the results of your hard work in a well performing team, and those who report to you show gratitude for your leadership, you may well find that the role of a leader is far more meaningful than you ever thought possible.