Grooming Technical Specialist to Technical Lead: 5 Critical Factors for Successful Role Transition

As a manager, how do you define the most valuable technical member in your team?

He is

  • Quite hardworkingSpecialist employee
  • Is a specialist in his area of expertise
  • Keen on learning new topics around technology and the domain
  • Very hands on
  • Customers like him
  • You are highly depending upon him

So far so good. Within no time his salary will increase beyond the ceiling for his role. You need to extract more from this member. Now the inevitable.

He has to play bigger role. He has to transition from specialist to technical leader. Most people struggle at this stage. Many times developing technical leaders is lot more difficult than developing managers.

Why Is This A Difficult Thing? Technical role transitions are very complex if to be done effectively. It has many dimensions. For management roles the job is more standardized within and across Industries. The expectations on technical roles can be very specific.

During the course of the transition, technical folks need to transition in 5 aspects:

1. Abstract thinking and connecting the dots with details from junior members

The specialist was so used to have clear understanding of the subject. Whereas there is lack of clarity, he would study it and get clarity. Now the expectation is different. He needs to decide how much clarity he needs to get. Beyond that he needs to be comfortable being it vague. And delegate rest of the job to junior members. After that he needs to integrate the picture and present to all stakeholders.

This is very different paradigm than he is used to.

2. Mentoring people on technical topics

He was so used to be acquiring knowledge. He became successful because of ability to learn, solve problem and acquire identity because of the topic. Due to these the subject of specialization is part of his identity. This needs double transformation: First – To beat the insecurity to share identity with someone else . Second -To develop the habit of sharing and caring.

Do not under-estimate the stress here.

3. Leading technical topics in cross functional setup

As a manager, which one do you find easy to get things done? Cross functional roles OR direct people roles ? Most know that direct people control makes it easier to get things done. Imagine a technical person (not a management role oriented person) having to do cross functional role. It is again double transition.

4. Communicating technical subjects that are complex & vague

We know that the primary purpose of any communication is making the audience understand. First you get clarity of the subject. Depending upon audience, you would abstract it. Choose the right form of communication. Deliver the communication. Verify that communication was successful. For most management communications, the subject as such as relatively simple. The focus goes to the next stages.

In technical subjects, knowing the subject itself is a huge deal. There is literally no end to how much you need to know. Then comes abstracting for the audience. For technical subjects, every time it is fresh start. Each technical topic is unique and the level of audience understanding is different. These two are extremely difficult phases to go through. The managers are mostly not involved in these steps. However are always there to judge the communication delivery.

For the technical specialist, he knew the subject thoroughly and he only had to deal with other steps of communication.

Once again your sympathy and empathy need to be with technical folks here.

5. Managing These Transitions Simultaneously

Many technical people get overwhelmed at this transition. They show many signs of break down. Managing role transitions are perhaps relatively easier because the roles are about managing self and managing others.

In technical roles, the focus is technical. The discussion around managing self & others take back seat. Also, the management books are written by management gurus who do not strike the chord with technical people. It has to be communicated in a way acceptable by technical people.

Due to this managing too many transitions simultaneously may become difficult. In those case, consider rejig of the responsibilities such that the he can focus on less number of transitions at a time. Once he develops ‘muscle’, add the other and expand the role.

During Formal Announcement Of The Role – Scenarios:

i. All Well:

When you announce the role, he may see the larger perspective and happily accept it. If so, good for you and him. However you may encounter the following as well.

ii. Expressed Opposition:

This is relatively easier one. The expressed opposition creates crisis and we always manage by crisis (right?). At least this sets the stage for discussion and with defined time frame.

Due to the reasons stated above, he may suspect your intentions. Irrespective of organization design, the technical leadership roles are vague. The chances are that – you may not have many examples to show in your organization. Maintaining trust is very important. First, your own conscience needs to be clear about what you doing. If your intentions are clear, you will be able to deal with it successfully.

iii. Accepting with Reluctance:  Some do not ‘pull’ the role. You need to ‘push’ it.  Initially you think you succeeded. This could wreck the ownership. Issues surface over period of time. Basic expectations may not be met.

After Formal Assignment Of The Role:

You still need to monitor how well person’s transformation is going. Many times managers track just the work. If you track his transition, you may not need to track his work !

If new role is not working, you will know it. There may not be glow in his eyes and energy at work. Yes. It is not crisis. If you ignore – it soon will be. You better have a chat considering the transition factors above.

For role design you can take a look at another tip here. And you can have a quick review of the role design check list as well.

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