Management Myth #12: I Must Promote the Best Technical Person to Be a Manager


Managing requires a different skill set from technical work, yet many companies promote their best technical workers to management positions. Here are some things to consider when it's time to promote your technical workers.

“I need a little breathing room in my group,” Carl said to Steve. “I have fifteen people reporting directly to me, and you and I both know that’s way too many. I need to promote somebody, but I’m having a little trouble deciding who to promote.” Carl shook his head as he looked at his org chart. “You’re a director. You have plenty of experience promoting people, right? What should I do?”

“You should do what I do,” said Steve. “Take the most talented technical person and make that person the manager. Then, you know you have the best person for the job.”

Carl almost spat his coffee. “You’re not serious, are you? You know what happened when we promoted Nancy a year ago. And that ended after a month. We had a revolt on our hands! All she can think about is databases. Little endians, big endians, cardinality, rows, joins—you name it. She was a disaster as a manager, and she didn’t even want the management position. She wanted a promotion, but to be a principal or consulting engineer, not a manager.

“No, we need a way to think about the kind of person the manager has to be and then think about who would fill that role. Remember, once we promote someone, we lose the technical work that person performs. We need to make sure we get the management work. Maybe we should ask if anyone wants to be a manager.”

“Who would want to be a manager?” Steve asked.

“Well, I like managing. I told you that I wanted to be a technical manager when you and I had our first one-on-one a while ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.”

“Do you like being a middle manager?”

“Well, I like setting the strategy, and I like making sure that our projects get done. I like making the project portfolio decisions, but sometimes I miss the technology. I wonder if I’m too far away from the technology now. I’m not a senior manager, and I’m not a first-line manager. I find middle management difficult sometimes.”

“Well, you’re honest.”

“That, I am. OK, let’s talk about your people more seriously. Do you need more of a catalyst—a cattle prod?” Steve laughed.

“No. Nobody needs a cattle prod. I think we need to look at the qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills more. It’s time to do a job analysis for the management position. Then, I think I’ll ask the people in my group if anyone wants the job. I probably should have been grooming people as part of a succession plan all along. It’s too late for that now, but I do know that we don’t need the best technical person.”

Management Skills Are Different from Technical Skills
Managers perform different work than technical people do. They require different skills. Managers deliver different value to the organization. It never makes sense to me when the best technical person is promoted into management. That deprives the organization of a great technical person and, worse, can create a terrible manager.

We need to recognize that there are two different career paths for technical people: technical and managerial. When management wants to reward technical people with more money, it’s critical that those technical people do not automatically get a management promotion. They need a technical promotion.

What Do First-line Managers Do?
Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a first-line manager and a technical lead. There is no standard for what each person might do, and each organization is different. However, figure 1 shows what I see as the big differences between technical and management work.

Figure 1: The continuum of technical lead work to management work

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