Most professionals are familiar with the Peter Principle—the idea that companies promote employees based on their performance in their current role, rather than on their ability to succeed in the new role. Employees then stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and "managers rise to the level of their incompetence," as the principle states.
"We promote people who are great at their current level instead of those who will be great at the next level—people who are good contributors and not necessarily good leaders," Scott Drake, vice president of technology at ScholarRx and the curator of LearnLeadership.org, said in a session at the 2018 Code PaLOUsa conference in Louisville, KY. "And once a person is in a position they are not competent in, they aren't good enough to go up, so they get stuck."
Leaders who micromanage, or those who would rather do the job themselves, are sometimes great contributors who never learned how to lead, Drake said.
The way organizations choose and develop leaders has been broken for a long time, Drake said. When someone is promoted, they often try to study how to manage, but study the wrong things.
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Drake identified 28 different skill sets necessary to rise through the ranks at any organization, and broke them into four different levels of leadership to help you map out what you need to master to become a strong leader.
1. Lead yourself
Leading yourself means leading by example and becoming a role model for others, Drake said. Here are the skills you need to master at this level:
- Learn how to learn. An ability to acquire skills and knowledge is key to surviving in a modern workplace, Drake said. There are many shortcuts to learning that you can find, including learning how to study and how to select the right topics, he added.
- Problem solve. When you ask a technologist what they want in a teammate, the top answer is a good problem solver, Drake said. "As you move up the leadership ranks, the problems change and intensify, but you still need to be a problem solver," he added.
- Decision-making. Learn about the decisions that technologists need to make, including what tech to use, and how often to check on systems.
- Play well with others. "As technologists, our people skills often trail our technical skills," Drake said. "But we build tools for people, work with people, and lead people. We need to be team players, good communicators, and good negotiators."
- Information management. People in tech are constantly bombarded with information from different sources, be it emails, feature requests, bugs, or meeting requests. Leaders learn how to keep the important things from falling through the cracks, Drake said.
- Time management. Jobs in tech often encourage you to do more work than is possible, Drake said. It's key to manage time wisely to not get burnt out or lose your work/life balance.
- Self-market. If you want to rise through the ranks, you need to learn to market yourself, in terms of recognizing who you are and what you do, and building a story around that. Drake marketed himself as "a proven team builder interested in solving big problems in education," which is a story that made him attractive to the specific jobs he was looking for, he said.
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2. Lead a team
This is the most difficult transition for most professionals, Drake said, as many people leading teams are not formal leaders, but are both leaders and contributors, and must shift between those ways of thinking. Team leaders also have to learn how to delegate work to others without micromanaging, and how to set boundaries with a team.
The skills needed at this level are:
- Communicating vision and establishing boundaries. "The first job of leader is to make sure everyone on the team knows where you're going," Drake said. Everyone needs to have a clear definition of success to make the best decisions.
- Motivation, purpose, and culture. "Your organization has a vision for how it wants to change the world," Drake said. "A motivated and engaged team is key to seeing that vision come to life."
- Delegation. This is where many new leaders falter, Drake said. You need to learn how to delegate problems to your team, rather than solutions, and break down large chunks of work into small tasks for the team to complete over time.
- Coaching. This involves learning how to help teammates solve their own problems without doing it for them, and providing corrective feedback without killing motivation.
- Leading meetings. Team leaders need to come to meetings with an agenda that clarifies the team's vision and next steps, Drake said.
- Managing projects. Projects are the organizing structure for most work in the tech function. A good manager will understand the different types of project management, and which fits their team best.
- Hiring well. Hiring is a root problem in many organizations, Drake said, and poor decisions can lead to high turnover and low morale.
3. Lead a department
When it comes to leading a department, technical know-how is still helpful, but strategy begins to become more important, Drake said. A department leader must think bigger than tech, and put their problem solving skills to work on higher-level issues in the organization. Here are the skills needed to master this type of leadership:
- Execution strategy. Your organization has a vision for how it wants to change the world. You need to figure out what role your department plays in that vision, and how you can break apart that long-term goal into executable projects and milestones for your team, Drake said.
- Negotiation. Helping employees settle disputes and arrive at agreements is the job of department leaders, Drake said.
- Manage products. Product management is a broad discipline that includes customer discovery, product visioning, and creation, marketing, and support. It generally spans multiple versions over several years, Drake said.
- Resource planning. This involves determining what people, equipment, facilities, and outside help are needed to help your organization achieve its vision.
- Personnel development. Your organization will change over time, and your team will need to change with it, Drake said. Growth and development are major motivators for employees, and need to be leveraged for retention.
- Budgeting. Managers need to make tradeoffs in the initiatives they pursue, the features they include in a product, and the quality they strive for, Drake said. Budgeting allows you to allocate capital on paper to make better decisions.
- Change management. Change is hard, and many people and organizations fight it even when it could benefit them, Drake said, so a leader must help in times of transition.
4. Lead an organization
At the VP or C-level, technical know-how is much less important than strategic skills, Drake said. However, "if you think building tech solutions is fun, you might enjoy building organizations," he added. "The work is highly strategic, which can be a great fit for technologists. The challenge is that it requires exceptional people skills."
Here are the skills that organization leaders need to succeed:
- Vision strategy. Organization leaders are the champions of a cause, Drake said. They must develop a clear vision for how to improve the lives of their customers, and communicate it in ways that excite those who can bring it to life.
- Cross-discipline leadership. As you rise through the ranks, you'll likely gain some domain expertise, and understand how certain teams and employees work. The challenge is leading people in departments where you don't have firsthand experience with their unique challenges, Drake said.
- Business development, marketing, and sales. This involves far more facets than an organizational manager has time for, Drake said, and requires you to determine where you can create a competitive advantage for your company.
- Operations and execution. This involves determining how the organization creates its products or services, and how it can differentiate itself on the market, Drake said.
- Relationships and partnerships. "No person or organization can do everything well," Drake said. "Good relationships and social capital help find and retain employees, customers, vendors, partners, and co-champions for the cause."
- Finances. Managers must learn what capital resources are required to start or grow the organization, how money flows through the organization, and the critical financial health measures that must be tracked.
- Legal and governance. All organizations exist in a world of rules and laws, which can alternatively be hampering and create opportunities, Drake said. A manager needs to have a strong understanding of the laws in their location and industry.
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.