One of the biggest shifts in Phil Barnett’s impressive career was giving up his engineering job to become a manager. Surprisingly, it was an easy transition for him. Yet Barnett admits he is the exception, not the rule. Most techies have a difficult time making the leap to the managerial ranks.

Countless stories have been written advising techies on how to become successful managers, implying that anyone can become a manager with proper training. Yet not all techies are cut out to be managers, and no amount of training or advice can mold them for a management position.

As a CIO, you may be expected to hire a technical manager or give your approval on other related management hires within your company. This Tech Watch gives you some helpful markers you can use to evaluate potential management talent.

Marks of a manager
When 63-year-old Barnett left his management position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, last year after a 34-year stint to become a management professor at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management in Claremont, CA, he was well qualified to teach the fine points of management.

“Most engineers are trained to think there is an answer to everything,” Barnett explains. “That thinking is practically inbred; it’s instinctive. But that’s not the case in the managerial world. It’s confounding to accept the fact that often there is no right answer, which is one reason why it’s difficult for engineers, for example, to think like managers.”

Technical people operate on certainty, clarity, and understanding. “They think they can control the future with a good plan,” Barnett adds. “But from a manager’s perspective, that’s myopic thinking. Managers must think broadly, cope with uncertainty, and go beyond technology to embrace nontechnical solutions.”

John Stieber, a consultant at Hagberg Consulting Group, a management assessment company in Foster City, CA, cites three essential qualities of a successful manager:

  1. You must be a visionary evangelist who can passionately explain and rally others for support.
  2. You must be a relationship builder who is able to connect with people and treat them with compassion and respect.
  3. You must implement strategies that achieve goals.

Hagberg surveyed managers “in trouble” and found that fewer than half had technical backgrounds. Balancing strengths against weaknesses, Hagberg’s research listed the following qualities as assets of good technical managers: independent, highly intelligent, visionary, strategic, analytical, high integrity and standards, ability to achieve results, confident, and decisive. However, weaknesses included insensitivity, impatience, inability to establish long-term relationships, lack of empathy, failure to keep others informed, lack of flexibility, and poor delegation skills. Stieber lists poor communication skills as the technical professional’s biggest roadblock to becoming a good manager.

Successful managers enjoy working with people. That’s not to say techies are loners or misanthropes, but as Julie Schoenfeld, president and CEO of OEwaves, Inc., an optical-components manufacturer in Pasadena, CA, observes: “Many techies are not engaging, nor do they care to be.”

Schoenfeld also says many techies have difficulty making quick decisions, which is essential to being an effective manager. “Good managers must make decisions with the data in front of them,” she says. “Techies constantly need more information because they’re so analytical, which can seriously impair the decision-making process when facing tight deadlines or trying to beat a competitor to market.”

So how do you know if a technical worker is potential management material? Schoenfeld suggests evaluating him or her on the following points:

  • Can the candidate weigh contradictory thoughts? Managers must often consider conflicting information in order to make good decisions.
  • Can he or she take criticism? A thick skin and an openness to criticism from anyone—subordinates as well as superiors—are essential to success in management.
  • Can the candidate manage conflict? “Techies make great coaches and mentors but are often averse to managing conflict,” says Schoenfeld. “One of the biggest reasons teams break up is the manager’s failure to air and resolve conflicting opinions.”
  • Is he or she intuitive? Managers need a good deal of intuition—a quality that is often at odds with a technical person’s analytical nature.
  • Can this person get involved in low-level problems that don’t test his or her analytical powers? Managers aren’t always provided with mind-challenging projects—they must also involve themselves with more minute, and often boring, issues as well.

What methods to you use to evaluate a person’s management potential? Do you rely on intuitive judgments or explicit criteria? Evaluate yourself by the standards outlined in Bob Weinstein’s column. Find any surprises? Share your thoughts by posting a comment below or send us a note.