IT Employment

Avoid the cost of IT management promotion failures

It's common practice to promote top technical performers into management positions, but sometimes it can backfire. Before you promote your star IT pro to a management position, make sure he or she is ready, willing, and able to do the job well.

By Joe Santana

Every year in thousands of companies, well-meaning managers pick star technical performers for IT management roles. These promotions come with high expectations that the new managers will love their new jobs and automatically figure out what to do because they were such high achievers as individual contributors.

What will happen in most cases, however, is that many formerly confident and top-performing workers will disappoint the people who promoted them because they either do not want to do the work of a manager or they simply lack the required skills. Either way, the results are disastrous for the company, the manager who promoted them, as well as these new managers who have to suffer a rapid fall off their career ladders. The question is, what can you do to avoid these career-damaging and costly mistakes? Here is one real-life example of promotion failures, and three tips that can help you make wise promotions and provide rookie managers with the skills they lack.

From the trenches: Promoted too early
Some time ago, I accepted a position as the executive leading several technology teams in a growing business environment. Within this group there were several newly promoted junior managers who were the designated supervisors of specific teams. Over the course of time, I found out that, while all of the new IT managers had been top performers as individual contributors, these rookies were all terrible managers who demonstrated little promise for future improvement. But all was not a total loss. As I met with the new managers, I discovered two key reasons behind their failure to perform well: Some of them hated being managers and simply did not like the new role. Others wanted to be managers but just did not know how.

Over the course of the first few months, I transferred the people who hated the management role back to various technical professional roles, where they again began to thrive, grow, and make valuable contributions.

I also started a development program for the new managers who liked their jobs but lacked the skills required to perform effectively. In time, this group showed dramatic improvements in their performance as managers. Overall, it took almost a year of turmoil and expense to correct all of the direct and indirect effects of a few well-meaning but poorly made promotional actions.

Three tips for promoting the right people to the right jobs
1. Make sure IT management is the right area for staff members before you promote them
There is nothing that will hurt a career and cause more damage than moving people into a demanding role to perform work for which they lack a natural talent and in which they are not interested. When you consider the percentage of waking hours spent at work and the need to be personally engaged in order to operate effectively in today’s high-paced IT world, it’s clear that doing work that’s not in alignment with natural competencies and the personal interest of the performer is a recipe for disaster.

Before you consider promoting someone into a management role, you must make sure that the person has the talent, desire, and willingness to fill the role. The job candidate must have the natural capacity to do the job well. The person also needs to really want to do the job. For example, a person might be very talented at managing, but if that person doesn’t have a desire to manage, then a promotion to a management position could be a major failure. Finally, the job candidate must also accept the cons that go along with the job. For example, the new manager may need to travel more or attend meetings that occur two hours before his or her current work schedule. For certain people, this may be too large a price to pay.

To help employees test themselves for suitability for an IT management role, ask them to read the job description for the prospective role and ask themselves, “What will I need to do to produce the results demanded by this position?” Ask them to list the answers as actions.

Next, tell them to question whether these are the things they want to do all day long for most of their workweek and beyond. Invite them to also identify the cons and question whether they are willing to accept the price. Tell them that if they have any serious hesitations, then they should consider not accepting the position.

There are many great nonmanagerial, technology-centric opportunities in the IT field where technical professionals can grow both their career and compensation without moving into management. (One of those newly promoted managers that I moved back into an IT professional role five years ago has since more than doubled his salary doing technical work that he enjoys.)

Make it clear to the job candidates that if IT management is not for them, it does not mean that the forward movement of their career will stop. It simply means that branching off into IT management will not provide them with the fulfillment they need to stay excited and engaged. If, on the other hand, you do find that IT management is the right direction for a person, then the next two tips will be very helpful.

2. Help employees learn and develop confidence in their new craft
Moving from a technology role to the manager of a team of IT professionals is somewhat like going from being a baseball player to a team coach. A coach would certainly be able to draw upon his or her own experience as a baseball player, but the coach’s new position would demand a host of new skills as well. These skills include understanding how to think and respond to situations as a coach, not as a player. This new mind-set and skill set centers around developing, cultivating, and motivating other people to peak performance. In the player-to-coach transition, the person moves from being a doer, a self-developer, and a star to being a coordinator of others, a developer of others, and a star-maker.

As new IT managers, your job candidates will need to learn how to:
  • Effectively partner and communicate with their people.
  • Identify and cultivate talent in others.
  • Develop and sustain the quality and productive performance of a team.
  • Recognize the type of people they need, hire them, develop them, and retain them.
  • Act as a bridge between senior management strategy and actions taken by their team so as to maintain a focus and alignment between the team’s efforts and the company’s objectives.

As new IT managers, these and other key people-management skills will not simply come to your new hires without effort. You will need to make an investment of your time to reorient (get them to think like managers), train (develop new skills), and coach (develop confidence and fine-tune performance). The key point here is, be prepared to make a personal investment in shepherding and coaching your newly promoted managers for at least the first three to six months.

3. Help them let go of their old job
Most people are accumulators. As a result, they join the ranks of what a recent Harvard Business Review article called people in “active inaction.” People who are heavily engaged in active inaction are always busy running here and there, reviewing hundreds of e-mails, and checking off to-do lists that are the size of a college textbook. Yet their efforts yield few if any results. The scariest part of this article is that 90 percent of the managers that participated in the study were engaged in active inaction.

If you look closely at IT managers who are trapped in a vicious cycle of active inaction that leaves them drained and yet unfulfilled by results, you will find that one major culprit is the tendency not to let go of activities they engaged in before they became managers. For the most part, these activities are comprised of:
  • Meetings they attended as technical professionals.
  • E-mail lists that they joined as part of their old job.
  • Tasks they performed as technical professionals.

As a first step in your development program for newly promoted IT managers, have them review everything they currently do and generate a list of what they're going to drop or delegate in order to make room for their new duties. Review this list with them and make sure they take immediate action. Assure them that the vacuum they create will not last long, and that the process of learning and executing their new role as IT managers will immediately fill it.

Conclusion
IT management can be a rewarding career if the role is suited to a person’s nature and if the person is ready and willing to learn the ropes and leave the old job behind. But it’s not for everyone who excels as an individual contributor. Remind subordinates who are anxious to jump in without weighing all the factors of that old-but-true saying, “If you act in haste, you will repent in leisure.” Encourage aspiring IT management candidates to do research and take the time to think the decision through. Finally, be prepared to follow up all your promotions with an investment of time and effort in the development of your newly minted managers.
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