New managers must find balance between tech and management duties

It's tempting to fill your early days as an IT manager by focusing on problems in your comfort zone: the technical side. But to be effective, you'll have to learn to balance managing your team and attending to technical problems.

We recently received an e-mail from TechRepublic member Julius Roberts, who touched on an important issue many LAN administrators face. Julius leads a LAN/WAN team for a private multinational IT firm in Australia and has been working in IT for four and a half years. He had a stellar career as a technician before his recent promotion to team leader. Because of staffing constraints, Julius must continue to handle many of his technical duties. However, as team leader, he also has numerous managerial responsibilities. Julius wants to know how to continue his successful work as a technical expert, for which he is still measured, while assuming his managerial responsibilities and building a strong team and an environment where people want to work.

New IT managers who are required to continue handling many of their technical responsibilities are placed in a difficult position. Most managers believe that there are not enough hours in the workday to adequately fulfill all of their responsibilities. So how can they hope to successfully manage their teams and also handle technical tasks? The answer is that they can't—at least not without compromises.

The answer to Julius' question lies in the very concept of management itself. Effective managers demonstrate the ability to embrace (or at least accept) uncertainty, properly analyze environmental conditions that have an impact on their team's ability to perform work, and mold work processes to address those conditions. Julius, like many other IT managers, must walk a tightrope between being the team leader and working alongside other team members as a technician. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are in the position of being a "player/manager:"
  • Attempt to clarify the priorities of senior management—just what are the expectations anyway?
  • Analyze the characteristics of your team and the work environment to determine your own priorities.
  • Develop a plan that will permit you to be both manager and technician.
  • Examine your own motivations and actions to ensure that you are not compromising your own ability to manage.

Clarify senior management expectations
If you're required to continue as a technician, you need to determine what senior management considers most important. For example, if senior management is just looking for a contact person when things go wrong with the LAN, your technical role within the team will probably take precedence over the managerial role. However, if senior management is looking for you to build a strong work team, maintain strong customer service, and anticipate future LAN needs, the managerial role will be more dominant.

Determine your own priorities
Effective managers are rarely passive in the way they manage. Although it is critical to determine the expectations of senior management, you also need to develop your own strategy for making the team successful. For example, if the competency level of work team members is high, you can probably spend less time on front-line technical requirements and more on managing the team. However, if some or all team members lack the basic skills to work independently, you will most likely need to focus more on technical responsibilities, at least initially.

Develop a plan
Once you have determined senior management's expectations and your own priorities, develop a plan of action that will allow you to devote as much time as possible to team management. It can be useful to discuss this issue openly with team members and solicit their input. The team may come up with interesting and useful ways to cover the technical responsibilities while you devote more time to management issues. At the very least, they'll probably be more sensitive to the balancing act you're faced with. It can also be useful to set aside certain times of the day or week when you are able to focus on management issues—perhaps during times when the need for technical support is at its lowest.

Examine your own motivations and actions
It is human nature to gravitate toward work and situations that are most familiar to us. Therefore, it is important to examine how your own decision making is influencing the balance between technical and managerial responsibilities. You may be missing important management opportunities because of an interest or preference for technical responsibilities. One of the most difficult things new managers face is giving up work activities that have resulted in their success (and promotion to management).

An example
The following scenario should help highlight some of these points. Jamie is a highly successful LAN technician who has recently been promoted to team leader. She has been assigned to a LAN team that is currently understaffed due to downsizing within the organization. Once she began familiarizing herself with the responsibilities of the team, she realized that she was going to have to provide some technical support to the LAN.

Jamie wasted no time in becoming actively involved with the LAN and demonstrating her competence as a technician. Although things seemed to be going okay, she sensed that things were not going as well with the team itself. Team members often bickered about workflow issues and did not seem as sensitive to customer service issues as she felt they should be.

Jamie approached her supervisor with her concerns and asked his advice. Her supervisor, who had been a team leader for 10 years before being promoted, asked her to clarify how she viewed her role as a manager. Jamie thought about it and realized that she had been focusing so much on her technical responsibilities that she had not thought much about her managerial role.

Her supervisor suggested that she needed to reexamine the balance she had created between management and technical responsibilities. He acknowledged that the lack of staff limited her ability to be a full-time manager, but challenged her to find a way to spend more time managing the team.

Jamie accepted the challenge by turning over most of her nonemergency technical responsibilities to other team members and scheduling weekly staff meetings where workflow issues and a focus on customer service could be discussed. Jamie began to spend more time analyzing how the team performed its work and finding ways to be more efficient and effective.

The moral of this story is that when Jamie broke away from her focus on technical support and began to manage the team more closely, she found ways to better utilize her staff and better balance her managerial and technical responsibilities. She continued to provide technical support when needed but was maximizing the time she could spend managing the team.

Balancing it out
Many IT managers are faced with tough decisions when trying to balance technical and managerial responsibilities. When you are short-staffed, it can often seem like you are spending all of your time providing technical support.

Try to maximize the amount of time you can spend on managing your team by asking senior management staff for feedback on their expectations of you. Analyze the positive and negative aspects of your team and the work environment and determine what needs your attention the most and then develop a plan that allows you to devote as much time as possible to team management. Try not to fall into the trap of always responding to technical issues first because they are immediate and the most visible. Putting management issues on the back burner can create long-term problems for your team and can, ultimately, have an adverse impact on productivity.

If you want to learn more about how to balance technical and managerial responsibilities, take a look at The Technical Manager's Handbook: A Survival Guide by Melvin Silverman (1996).

New manager questions
Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you'd like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.


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