Executives in technical disciplines such as IT and engineering know that it takes more than administrative and communicative skills to make your departments tick; it requires deep technical know-how, and the ability to solve difficult problems when solutions aren't readily apparent. This is where strong technical contributors distinguish themselves, often saving the day for their departments and companies.
But strong technical contributors can also be high maintenance for their managers. These individuals know they are highly skilled, and their sense of self-worth is based on their technical expertise. They can also have a tendency to view their managers as pencil pushers who are in administrative positions because they can't create value in any other way. This places pressure upon managers and executives who are responsible for ensuring that their most highly compensated specialists interface well with staff so work can flow seamlessly.
Here are four key challenging areas for personal interaction with technical stars, and the strategies that managers (including myself) have used with some success.
1: Communications facilitation
Individuals grounded in technical skillsets believe in doing, not in talking. They often get impatient with mentoring responsibilities. They question the need for meetings. Nevertheless, their input is critically important in projects and teamwork.
Managers ease this communications process by facilitating communications that are project-oriented (i.e., not political), and by taking the political discussions themselves. By assisting in teamwork facilitation, managers also play important roles.
2: Withholding information
Key technical contributors have spent years acquiring knowledge in their areas of expertise; this knowledge is the key to high salary and company recognition for their achievements. These individuals can become guarded when it comes to disseminating to others information and experience that they had to learn on their own, and which they regard as job security.
It is a manager's responsibility to build the knowledge levels of their entire staff, and getting key technical contributors to contribute to the education job is critical in this process. The managers who are most successful in facilitating knowledge transfers are adept at identifying the key technical contributors on their staff who are willing to mentor others, and to reward them for this involvement.
In cases where technical skills and knowledge can't be easily transferred, bringing in a consultant skilled in the area might be the answer. In severe cases where star technical contributors simply don't want to share information, it might make sense to take the risk of making a personnel or assignment change.
3: Work exhilaration
Several years ago, I had a highly skilled technical contributor on staff who was always there to save the day when a project was in trouble. We high-fived him every time he rescued the project from a problem.
Then one day the project finished. It went live and was a huge success. While we were celebrating, our technical star quietly sat in the corner of the room. For several weeks, he seemed to sink into a depression at work, because now there were no longer any tight deadlines or critical problems to solve. He was going through a kind of withdrawal from high stress "project combat."
As a manager, I recognized I had to do something. While we were temporarily between projects, I started him on a technology research project that had many unanswered problems to pick up the slack.
4: Arrogance and high salaries
In the semiconductor industry, it was important to develop new processes and to secure patents. Accordingly, some of our strongest technical contributors were paid more than their managers and were given terrific incentive packages.
From a managerial perspective, these individuals could be arrogant and difficult to work with. We often found that the best strategy was to leave these individuals to work on what they had been hired to produce, and to evaluate them based on the results. I also made it a point to get to know them on a personal basis to see what they enjoyed and how that might be shared with other staff. This process was amazingly successful. In many cases, it led to the forging of fruitful relationships between these key contributors and more junior personnel who were just learning their way around the industry.
What are common issues you've seen with superstar IT pros? How was the issue addressed, and do you think that was the right course of action? Share your experiences in the discussion.
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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 of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.