Want to take that top-shelf developer, crack project manager, or exceptional analyst and turn them into a horribly ineffective resource who is on the chopping block at the next layoff cycle? One of the easiest ways to do so is a technique routinely practiced in many IT organizations: promote them.
Technology is generally a skills-driven field. We seek professionals with proven experience with a particular development environment or enterprise software package, and often provide painstaking training to fill any gaps in their knowledge, or accommodate changes in an internal technical landscape. Some IT workers will even avoid touching an unfamiliar technology, quickly claiming that “I haven’t been trained in that” before even making an attempt to learn something new and different. Despite such seeming rigor placed on building technical skills, we’ll routinely promote individuals to leadership positions or foist broad organizational change on swaths of IT workers, and expect them to learn the nuances of leadership or how to operate in a dramatically new environment, through some sort of organizational osmosis.
Leadership is learned
While some individuals are surely predisposed to a certain skill or talent, even the most natural athlete must still train and refine their skills, just as history’s great leaders perfected their techniques over decades. Oddly, in many IT shops that strongly emphasize technical training and demonstrated competency, we’ll promote someone to a leadership position without providing them with any tools to become an effective leader. Leadership and management are distinct skillsets that must be learned and perfected, and just as a great talent for golf won’t make you a baseball sensation, the best developer might not be an appropriate leader.
Killing two birds with one stone
Unfortunately, promoting an unprepared employee to a leadership position without training effectively kills two resources for the price of one. That exceptional business analyst who is promoted to team lead can no longer perform their analyst role, and if they wallow and fail as a low-level leader you’ll also soon be in the market for a replacement, trading one position with a high-performer for two failures. To mitigate the risk of turning a technical star into a failed manager, I suggest the following.
Avoid “up or out”
Many in IT are otherwise happy and effective in technical roles, and see a management role merely as a way to garner more recognition, rewards, or advancement. If your IT roles plateau at a certain level, you risk either burning out your high performers or forcing them into a management track they are uncomfortable with or would rather avoid. Try to create positions within IT that offer your best technical people opportunities to explore the newest technologies, perform R&D activities, or mentor newer workers, providing a way for them to increase their leadership and management competency without leaving technology fully behind.
Provide the skills
While some leaders are able to grow into the role through diligent self-study and on-the-job learning, everyone should have some basic leadership and management training. When you consider promoting someone on your IT staff to a management or leadership role, clearly explain the expectations of the role, and work with the employee to evaluate gaps in their skills and develop a plan for formal training, mentorship, or external consulting to help round out their skills. Done in a constructive and collaborative manner, you’ll set that employee up for success rather than failure.
Let the door go both ways
Just as technical staff need development and coaching to grow into leadership roles, an otherwise excellent leader should be provided technical briefings and skill development if they’re transitioning into an IT management role from another business function. IT has a unique vocabulary, set of standard practices, and subtle nuances that can be taught far more quickly and effectively than spending years picking up bits and pieces.
While you may feel that you’re rewarding a high-performing employee by offering a promotion to a management or leadership role, if you don’t equip them with the skills to success you’re doing the employee and your organization a grave disservice.