By Ruby Bayan

In his bestseller, The Peter Principle, Dr. Lawrence J. Peter theorized that in a hierarchy, employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. His view is that you will advance to your highest level of competence and consequently get promoted to a position where you will be hopelessly inept.

If you’re a proficient and effective tech support pro, you’re most likely demonstrating peak competence in your job right now. Very soon, your boss may commend you for your excellence and valuable contribution to your organization, and, to reward you for your efforts, favorably endorse your promotion to an executive position. But is the managerial level right for you? Or are you getting set up to be a statistic supporting the Peter Principle?

Before you deliberate on which company car will go well with your new upper management title, consider the career shift tips and insights we gathered from three former-techs-turned-managers. Here are the realities you need to consider, along with steps you need to take, to ensure that your promotion from tech to manager doesn’t raise you to your level of incompetence.

Step one: Upgrade your communication skills
Erik Roque started his IT career designing hardware for handheld computers, writing system firmware, and developing mobile applications. Today he is the AVP for Internet technologies of Active Business Solutions, Inc., managing a large group of Java developers, Web designers, and Oracle DBA/system admin data center personnel.

As a tech, most of the time you “communicate” with your computer or whatever equipment/tools you use in your job, he said.

“Sure you need to discuss stuff with fellow engineers and supervisors, but topics are more or less the same—related to solutions, projects, or problems at hand,” Roque said. “With a management responsibility, you mostly communicate with people who have vast differences in concerns, interests, intelligence, and view of issues—from executive management down to the managers, engineers, sales and marketing people, HR, and administrative personnel. This is the big difference.”

Step two: Learn to direct, rather than act
Wayne W. Hardy, a technical professional with over 35 years experience in the telecommunications industry, was a technician and manager for what used to be the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.

“I have seen that typical techies can perform to their full technical skill, but have trouble in directing the work and not doing it themselves. I think this is the crux of the problem,” Hardy said.

Delegating work and providing support to their subordinates is one of the first things that techs must learn when promoted. Managers get paid for what they know, not for what they can do with their hands—for managing the job and not actually doing it. So, they must keep their hands off, Hardy said, and that’s why some techs stay away from promotions.

“I’ve also known many techs who took promotions and tried to perform well,” Hardy said. “But they just could not get the ‘hands on’ out of their system. And they eventually ‘took their tools back.'”

Step three: Accept a spectrum of responsibilities
Hardy recalled that his first IT management position was quite an adjustment for him because of the vastly different responsibilities and goals.

“As a technician, I had definite responsibilities to perform the job,” Hardy said. “As a manager, there were many new responsibilities, most of which were a little fuzzy.”

Like the story of the train and the driver, Hardy said, he became the driver primarily responsible for blowing the whistle. “But if the train jumps off the track, I catch hell.” A tech promoted to manager must change his mindset from one of producing results himself to one of producing results with others, he advised.

Step four: Develop portable competencies
Jim Zangara, West Coast IT Manager of Premiere Radio Networks, was first hired as a special projects engineer to evaluate and deploy new technology. He said that you could be effective as a manager if you develop portable technical competencies—those that you can take with you to any level of the corporate ladder, and which you can tap into in a managerial capacity. For example:

  • Be solutions-oriented: “My staff feels they can come to me with problems they can’t solve because they know that with my background, I might be able to help, or at the very least, I will understand the problem.”
  • Double-check and balance: “First and foremost, I’m a meticulous tech. As IT manager, I present the tech side across the management/business side to balance our discussions on policies.”
  • Be a quick study: “On the tech side, as well as the manager side, you need to learn the skills required, and constantly refresh them, to get the job done.”

Along the same lines, Roque said, “A management role built on a strong technical foundation will be more fulfilling and less stressful.”

Step five: Get formal management training early on
“If you are seriously looking at shifting to a management role, make it top priority to get formal training early on, not only on business management itself, but especially on people management and interaction skills,” Roque advised.

A management role carries a lot of responsibility over the careers of other people, and it is better to be equipped and properly trained to do it right and to do it well, he said. “Talent and good intentions are not sufficient.”

A final word: Assess your passion and current situation
A management position is not for everyone. You may be better off remaining a tech all your life, which is not such a bad idea “if you are an extremely good techie—a guru, to use a more apt term,” according to Roque.

“Continuous learning and improvement in skills and acquisition of new knowledge is very important for a technical person to remain useful,” Roque said. If you can consistently do this at a level that justifies your salary, you will remain or keep your techie role, and maybe get promoted to senior levels in the technical career path, he said.

Roque advised that if you still love technical work, you should postpone any career shift. Don’t fall prey to moving to a more financially rewarding management role in exchange for the job satisfaction and sense of accomplishment you get as a techie. If you do, the Peter Principle may well get another chance to make its case.

Have you seen the Peter Principle in action?

Have you or someone you know been a perfect illustration of the Peter Principle in an unsuitable role? How do you keep from rising to the level of your own incompetence? Post your thoughts in the discussion below.