Promoting Technical Experts to People Managers

“Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

Peter F. Drucker (November 19, 1909 – November 11, 2005), Austrian-born American management consultant, educator and author.

Promoting Technical Experts People Managers 2014-05-20

Image Source – Shao-chun Wang




People Management
Project Management


People are NOT items with movable parts





In the workplace, many people are fascinated by staff whose technical expertise in a particular area — depth of knowledge, ability to think critically through situations — allows them to demonstrate and apply their know-how. Often times, these subject matter experts are highly regarded as “thought leaders.” However, a common mistake is to promote them into people management roles for their technical competence rather than their ability (or even desire) to lead and develop people.

When I interview people for managerial positions, they will often say that they are not micro-managers, and have the managerial courage to deliver bad news to people. Saying that you are a good manager is much easier than practicing good people management. This skill is not to be confused with project management. People are not items with moveable parts.

I recently interviewed someone with a strong technical background and described to him the team he would likely manage. This group is diverse in every way imaginable — age, race, capability, knowledge, skills, and even experience in industries. There is a ‘Diva’ who is overly demanding for no particular reason, a ‘New college graduate’ looking for guidance that is not readily available, an ‘Eeyore’ who is negative in every way possible, and a ‘Professor’ who treats every project like a science experiment and runs off to do his own tests.

I challenged my candidate by asking “What are some things you plan to do to get this group working together, and accomplishing projects that are already behind schedule?”

The hiring manager and director were not pleased with how I presented the team to this and other managerial candidates. From my standpoint, if the candidate is already intimidated by this description, then he is not the person for this job. After all, we don’t want to offer the role to the wrong person, only to find ourselves in the same unimproved predicament six months later. Any manager’s inability to supervise people will subsequently cause severe issues related to low morale and incomplete work.

In its “2013 State of the American Workplace”, Gallup reported that 70% of the workers surveyed were not engaged at work. Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s lead analyst for workplace, ranked the three items from this survey that he felt mattered most in building workplace engagement:

1. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

2. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

3. At work, my opinions seem to count.

Just what are the people management skills that would impact these three items? If you are looking out for potential managerial candidates, the following questions are useful as part of your assessment-kit. If you are looking at improving your managerial capabilities, these same reflective questions are for your self-evaluations.

1. Achieve what one does best every day. What are your employees’ strengths? As a manager, do you make the best use of your employees’ talents in your projects? Do you meet with your employees at least once a month to dialogue about their performance and ideate on improving work deliverables?

2. Encourage development. Do you provide feedback constructive to your staff’s professional development, or as an opportunity to present a teachable moment? Do you encourage your reports to gradually overcome some of their weaknesses as part of their personal and professional achievement? That said, don’t overemphasize on remedying shortcomings. As balance, do you consistently help your direct reports to leverage on their strengths (or forte)? Does the employee see a career path for himself, or are you able and willing to let your best performer leave your team to take on a new opportunity?

3. Recognize opinions. Before making any decisions that will impact your employees, do you consult them for plausible work solutions or workarounds? Do you consider their feedback as useful information for your decisions?

So, as you think about promoting that technical expert into a managerial role, ask yourself if these three items are those that he or she would be excited about driving into his or her workforce as a new manager. If the answer is, “Yes,” then you have a technical expert who is also interested in people. If the answer is, “No,” then you should ask yourself if you are assessing managerial skills correctly. You never know — you could be missing out on a talented manager, who happens to be just your average engineer.

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Margaret (Peggy) Troyer, SPHR

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