Threads #13: Top tips on how to get technical people to lead and manage

Guest blog: Tips from founders, to founders, about good ways to persuade your technical people to give management a try.
3rd December 2018

Technical people often shy away from management, for lots of reasons; too many rules and too much paper pushing, it takes them away from building the technology, they don’t ‘do’ people. But technical people can often make the best managers if they are introduced to it the right way.

Here are some tips from founders of South West tech scale-up businesses, taken from the 2018 series of Threads Meetups, helping you to introduce your technical people to leadership and management.

It’s usually better to grow your own managers as they will already have the respect of the existing technical staff, they will understand your products and technology, and you will know them. It’s hard for a new manager brought in from outside to do these things, particularly when the team is small and the relationships are close.

Look for management skills whenever you hire technical staff, and check whether they see themselves moving into management at some stage. Hiring people like this will give you options in the future, as well as the technical skills that you need right now.

Hiring in managers from outside can bring in new skills that may help others within your organisation to learn.

Technical staff often have a poor opinion of management. This can be because they’ve seen it done badly – but that can be turned into a reason to have a go and to do it well.

Sometimes technical staff see management as paper pushing and political, but really it’s just getting a job done via more people that just yourself. Sell it to them in these terms, don’t call it management and let them work out what paperwork is essential – give them the freedom to work out how best to get the job done.

One of the things that technical staff dislike about management is the notion that there are too many rules. So think carefully what you need as outputs from your managers, and let them find their own ways to provide these, rather than following a process that you, or their training, has laid down.

Some people like a structured career path, others like the freedom to make their own way. Which is right for your organisation depends on its culture, size, and state of development. A mixture is possible, with an outline career path as a guide, but the flexibility to accommodate individual skills and aspirations.

Keep an eye on which of your technical staff might want to do management. Not all will want to or will have the aptitude. Some who may want to should not be managers, and there are those who think they don’t want to manage but actually, they do – the ones who get frustrated when things go wrong and want to make a difference.

Look out for opportunities to allow those people who you think may be up for management to dip a toe in the water. Don’t call it management, and give them the freedom to work out how best to do it their own way, with a little coaching.

Look out for people who find their own jobs. These are the ones who are likely to have management potential.

Designing people systems is much like designing technical systems. There are a bunch of objects whose behaviour you need to understand so that you can link them together sensibly to achieve a goal. The objects don’t always behave as advertised and sometimes you have to work out what they really do.

Debugging people systems is much like debugging technical systems, you need to test and probe – sometimes circuitously – and engage in problem solving – which is fundamentally what technical people do.

The first step into management usually includes doing some of the technical work yourself, and you’ll still be working closely with other technical staff who are working directly with the technology. Influencing the way others carry out technical work can be a big incentive to move into management, so this first step is really just doing more design and development but doing some of it through others.

The move from technical to manager involves a gradual widening of scope and a reduction in focus (less detail). This process needs to be driven by a desire to influence a wider scope, and to focus only by exception, and it should be a gradual process.

It can be hard for technical people who have moved into management to distance themselves from their technical peers. Both in terms of the need to direct the work of others and the need to avoid jumping in and doing the work themselves.

Pay people according to their value to the business. Make it possible for them to progress in status and salary along a technical path as well as a management path. Technical people shouldn’t choose to move into management in order to increase their salary alone, and managers need to accept that some of the staff they manage may be paid more than they are.

Don’t assume that your line management must mirror your operational management structure. It can be useful for staff to have line managers who are not their day-to-day operational managers as it gives them a route to resolve operational problems.

Remember that people’s career aspirations can often grow faster than the growth of opportunities presented by the organisation.

Threads Meetups are a way for Founders and Managers of technology businesses to share learning, experiences and conundrums. These roundtable discussions unpack topics around leadership, business and operations. Most people find at least one improvement to take away and implement.

Threads is held from 6:00pm to 8.30pm on the first Wednesday of each month. To RSVP, head to the Threads South West Meetup page.

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