It’s not always easy to identify the best candidate for an IT management position. Your star technical performer may seem the obvious choice, but that assumption is laden with pitfalls. The skills required to manage a team of people are quite different from the ones required for top-notch technical work. Some people can do both—yet many strong technical performers are ill suited for managing a technical group. Not only are the challenges different, but so are the rewards—a fact that can blindside an IT guru who steps into a management role.

At the most basic level, any IT manager candidate must satisfy two simple requirements:

  • They must be willing to do the job.
  • They must be able to do the job.

How do you determine who is both able and willing? I look for several essential skills and traits before I’ll promote an individual.

Are they willing to do it?
Determining whether a candidate is willing to move to management is a crucial preliminary step. Moving someone into management against their will reduces their chances of success.

Then there are people who are willing to take on the job but only because they see it as a good career move. Others truly relish the opportunity to take on the challenge. How can you tell the difference? For starters, people in the latter group will do more than just express their desire to move into management frequently and openly. They will take advantage of any opportunity to learn more about management and train themselves in preparation for the move. Watch your candidates to see who genuinely possesses this desire; it will go a long way toward overcoming the inevitable obstacles and challenges that arise in a career transition.

That said, don’t automatically write off someone who wants to manage but has misgivings about leaving the technical track. Have a conversation with this candidate to get a feel for their desire to manage and concerns about doing so. Someone with misgivings can still make a fine manager; however, they may need a clear option for returning to the technical track to allay their fears.

Are they able to do it?
When I’m evaluating someone for an IT manager position, here’s the checklist of traits I seek. Note that all of these skills can be demonstrated by IT professionals in nonmanagement positions.

A good candidate for a management position must possess solid communication skills in multiple forms, including e-mail, presentations, and informal updates. Equally important, they must be able to communicate well with diverse audiences, such as technical peers, business peers, management, and the user community. Are they able to succinctly explain the complexities of their technology and its value to the business? Can they offer such explanations without offending the audience?

A great deal of any manager’s success depends on the ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of people. While some candidates may not have highly developed skills in all forms—perhaps they haven’t yet learned how to present to groups—they need to demonstrate potential in the unlearned forms.

Interpersonal and networking skills
A successful manager constantly builds and maintains solid working relationships. Those people who can get things done in an organization through cooperation with others tend to be more effective managers.

Is the potential manager well regarded by peers and by managers of other groups? Does he or she understand the organization and how to work within it? Is the potential manager able to work well with the members of his or her own team?

An individual who has been rude or arrogant or difficult to work with won’t change just because they’re promoted to a job requiring more “people skills.” A depth of technical knowledge doesn’t outweigh the inability to work well with people.

Solid technical understanding
A colleague at one of the large computer manufacturers was experiencing serious problems with first-line managers. My colleague would promote the most capable individual in a group, the star performer, and nine months later that person had transformed into an under-performing manager unable to manage productivity, maintain the morale of the team, or handle the day-to-day responsibilities. Not only was the group being poorly managed, but the individual also frequently lost the technical strengths that justified the promotion. Clearly, the problem lay in assuming that technical excellence would translate into excellence in management.

The manager of a technical group doesn’t have to be the most knowledgeable member of the team. However, the manager does need a solid understanding of the technology. This includes understanding how long it takes to do things, how to identify skilled people, what tasks are critical and require a senior person, and the technology’s value to the business.

Time management skills
Thirty years ago, managers spent an average of nine minutes on each daily task. Today I believe the average has dropped with the extensive use of e-mail and voice mail and the rapid pace of today’s work environments. New managers must be able to handle a high volume of short tasks that occur simultaneously, not just for themselves but also for their group. They must be able to constantly prioritize and reprioritize the tasks in the queue. Amid all this constant reshuffling, they must be able to maintain focus on the important tasks for the day (or week or month) despite one interruption after another.

This critical trait is a little more difficult to observe in a potential candidate. One has to take note of examples as they occur.

Why is courage an essential trait? Managers face many tough situations: telling a difficult employee they must correct their behavior; pushing back for more reasonable schedules; delivering an appraisal that is less than expected. Without the courage to address issues as they arise, the manager will end up less productive and less viable.

Maintaining the desire to manage
The intrinsic rewards associated with management are significantly different from those with technical work. A new manager who hasn’t considered this factor may wind up disoriented and dissatisfied on the job.

For a manager, job satisfaction frequently derives from watching a project come together, contributing to the team’s growth and development, accomplishing more for the business as a group, and gaining a broader perspective of the work. The tangibility of technical work disappears, the frequency of the sense of accomplishment decreases, and peers’ respect for one’s technical ability may diminish.

The change in the intrinsic rewards takes some new managers by surprise. Discuss these changes frankly with candidates before you make your decision. A new manager will adjust to the job more smoothly if they’ve been forewarned about the different nature of the rewards and are willing to make the trade.

It’s possible to promote well from within; you simply have to be willing to look at your employees through a new lens. You’ll increase your chances of developing a successful new IT manager by taking into account the criteria set forth here.

What are your criteria for a good IT manager?

Do you agree that these traits are necessary for an IT manager? What skills or aptitudes would you add to this list? Post your comments below.