Being a great technologist requires very different skills than being a great technology leader. The key to making the transition is adopting the right mindset.
Technical managers are often promoted to their positions of leadership by rising through the ranks—more so than most other disciplines. This is a practical move considering that business decisions today increasingly hinge on the nuanced details of underlying technology. Technology leaders need to assess technical options, align recommendations with business requirements and communicate these decisions to non-technical stakeholders. If technology managers don’t understand the technology at a detailed level, it’s difficult for them to make the right call.
The challenge is that being a great engineer doesn’t automatically translate into being a great leader. Leadership—technical or otherwise—is not something one is born with; it is a skill that is developed over a lifetime. Unfortunately, many companies don’t have management training programs in place to cultivate leaders as they move up the org chart. And for those that do, these trainings are typically generic and conceptual. General management training is an important first step, but it is insufficient by itself to prepare technology leaders for the tactical challenges that await them on a day-to-day basis in their new role.
To help new technical managers through the transition from individual contributor to leader, I often work with them to adopt a new set of non-technical skills. Although everyone is different, I’ve found that the principles outlined below provide a strong foundation for becoming an effective technology leader—that is, one who is able lead a team, implement change and consistently achieve results.
1. Adopt a Business Mindset and Develop Empathy
As an individual contributor, it is acceptable to view technology through a purely engineering lens. You have the luxury of focusing on the “how” and not the “why.” This means that as a contributor, you can indulge in technology religion, propose solutions without regard to business impact, and leave it to management to sort out the practical considerations of the real world. When you become a leader, however, you no longer have this luxury. You are now “management.” This means you need to make decisions based on the messy realities of the business, which requires considering financial constraints, organizational culture, office politics, human foibles, and business results.
New managers often make the mistake of making the case for their initiatives in technical terms, rather than business terms, and they become frustrated when they fail to receive the proper support. They expect the business to instinctively adopt a technical perspective, instead of realizing that it’s their job to reframe their proposals from the standpoint of the business.
The best way to overcome this mistake is to take the time to understand the business metrics that the company cares about the most, and the pain points felt by other departments. This requires empathy—a critical skill for effective leadership. Technology managers should talk to their colleagues and listen to their challenges. They should unpack the key metrics of the business, and understand the forces that drive them. They must summon the quantitative and analytical skills they have developed as engineers and apply them toward a new set managerial problems. Once they have done this, then they can make their case as a business leader rather than a technologist, and they can start engaging in a constructive dialog with the business.