CXO

When to say no to an IT leadership position

Many key technical employees either aren't cut out to be a manager or don't want that role. Companies need to realize that these employees are just as crucial as C-level execs.

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In most cases, the road to promotions, pay raises, stock options, and other corporate incentives paves its way through a progression of management positions that ultimately culminates in the C-level suite. It's the reason why most employees aim for management when they set career goals. But what if you're not cut out to be a manager?

In IT, there are lots of key technical contributors who feel more at home with a machine to program or a database to build than with the politics and interpersonal interactions needed to engage with end users and their managers — and without these key tech contributors, many critical company functions would grind to a halt. Progressive companies where technology plays a major role recognize this.

More than 20 years ago, R. Bradley Hill, then a management consultant with the Hay Group, a human resources consultancy, wrote, "An organization's failure to recognize advanced technical skills can damage its efforts to develop and expand new technologies and products. Dual career paths provide for two equivalent career professions, one to recognize managerial contributions and one to recognize technical contributions....Dual career paths may be cost-effective in technical areas that are experiencing high recruiting and turnover costs or having difficulty attracting the talent required to meet business objectives.

Since that time, companies with strong technology dependence have taken action. "If I'm looking to hire a database administrator, I know that the salary is going to be at least $120,000, and that it will have to include perks like stock options that historically only management would get," acknowledged one CIO at a large midwestern bank that has staked its banking platform on advanced technology and analytics. And in the Silicon Valley, where engineering talent is fiercely competed for, firms have been known to hire engineers for one million dollars over a four-yearcommitment.

The ultimate irony is that many key technical contributors can end up founding and running their own companies, even if they really don't want to. They have the unique challenge of foisting management on others so they can continue to do what they love most.

"I invented a product and then saw how it could be applied in the marketplace," said a CEO and founder of a tech company. Before I knew it, I had several hundred customers, but the need to manage all of this was taking me away from being able to explore new ideas. So I hired a VP of sales to work with the customers and a COO to manage the company. Now I am still the CEO, and also the kind of founder I want to be — a founder of new technologies!"

Don't force a career in management

The takeaway for those who excel in technical fields is that you don't have to push yourself into management if you don't want it. There are four best practices worth considering if you choose a technical career path.

1: Go where technical talent is valued

If your company doesn't place high value on what you do, find a company that does. Given the IT technical talent shortage, there are enough of those companies out there.

2: Be the best at what you do

Stay abreast of new developments in your field — and don't stagnate by using the same tools and techniques year after year just because you are familiar with them.

3: Be a team player

Many technical contributors lack communications skills because of their focus on machines. Those who develop sufficient conversational skills to explain the value of what they are doing in plain English to end users, managers, C-level executives, and their bosses will be perceived as delivering greater value to their companies.

4: Enjoy what you do

The best key technical contributors are passionate about what they do.

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About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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