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How Do We Turn Engineers Into Managers?

November 29, 2011

Dear Engineering a Change:

There is an old saying in business management: "What happens when you promote your best (insert a technical position) to a managerial role?"

The answer: "You lose your best technical employee in that job—and often gain your worst manager of that technical position." Nor is this some corporate myth, like Sasquatch working in the mailroom. It's happening everywhere and far too often, as we found in DDI's Finding the First Rung study: 50 percent of low-performing frontline leaders were promoted because of their technical expertise.

A big reason technical promotions fail is because the individuals have never been exposed to the situations they will face on the job—such as delivering negative feedback to an underperformer or resolving conflict. More important, they have never been taught the leadership behaviors they need to master to handle these situations.

Awareness is the first step—you can't put people on a path toward leadership readiness if you don't know where their strengths or gaps are.

You also need to set the standard for what it means to be a leader in the department and company. An employee's last example of leadership may have been another technical expert who never offered a minute of coaching, or who delivered feedback with the heel of his shoe. Don't let that lasting impression be the potential new leader's management role model.

Invest time in developing your technical experts' leadership capabilities long before putting them into a leadership position. These are skills that can be trained and shouldn't be left to learning on the job, but instead into formal programs to really fine-tune these skills.

And, boy, does this work: We found that 62 percent of high-performing frontline leaders participated in a formal development program before their promotion

SOURCE: Bradford Thomas, Development Dimensions International Inc., Pittsburgh

LEARN MORE: Helping new managers learn to manage is a pivotal responsibility in helping them make the transition from being an individual contributor.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.