professional development, stephen fishman, social business

Earlier this week, I wrote about the difficulty of transitioning into management from IT. If you've already made this leap yourself, you know how hard it can be and you may now be facing the other hard transition; from Manager to Director. The challenges in this transition are very different than jumping from an individual contributor role to a manager role, but they are no less daunting. The task in the first transition is to change how your organization and peers perceive you; the task this time around is changing how you perceive yourself.

Transcending the Need For Authority

Some companies have interim roles like Senior Manager to help people transition from managing individual contributors to managing managers and the nature of each role will differ in each company and many times even within the same company. What tends to remain the same is the requirement that in order to be considered for these types of roles you have to show that you are capable of leading through mechanisms other than authority. This is disconcerting for many people because they view authority as the best and fastest mechanism to accomplish company goals.

Developing the conceptual understanding for why authority is neither the best, nor the fastest, mechanism for achieving change or accomplishing goals can be a multi-year, multi-job, multi-industry lesson for some people and more depressingly, it is a lesson some leaders never really learn and embrace because there are still many company cultures do not subscribe to this ethic. In consensus driven cultures (i.e., most medium and large corporations), not being able to see why authority is the tool of a weak leader will typically lead to frustration and criticisms that are repeated so often, they become cliches.

The Obstacles

"You need to learn how to delegate": This dynamic tends to be the greatest source of failing for first time managers. They keep falling into the trap of thinking things will go faster/better if they do something themselves. This trap often comes about from misunderstanding their own instincts and what they mean. Quite often, first time leaders will feel nervous and uncomfortable in delegating a task and assume this nervousness is a signal to reverse course. The first pang of nervousness in delegating tasks is not a sign to reverse course, it is a signal that you have arrived at the destination. 

This doesn't mean "Delegate everything! The more nervous and uncomfortable you are, the better!" This only means "If you are not mildly nervous and uncomfortable, your not delegating enough."

"You manage, but you don't lead": This criticism often comes about when leaders don't understand their role in the development of team commitments. When leaders start making low level commitments for their teams (i.e., dates, approaches, estimates, etc) they not only cease to be leaders they remove the possibility of shared commitment from their teams. Good leaders know their role is to protect their teams from over-committing and to develop commitments to goals and principles (e.g., "we are going to develop an API strategy", "we are going to show respect for other disciplines").

The Tactics

Other then switching companies, there are several things an IT Manager can do to make the transition more likely to happen and be successful when it does:

  1. Study the humanities -- There are so many voices in western society telling us the arts are not useful for getting a job. This may be somewhat true for entry level jobs, but it falls apart completely for anyone with aspirations beyond that of an individual contributor. Literature and philosophy are the basis for understanding society and the people within it. If you want to be a leader of people (or at least a good one), you need to start reading something beyond hard science and technology.
  2. Learn to ask questions -- Good leaders know that asking the right question is their job and providing the right answer is the job of the team. Many leaders can easily forget this and it takes time to develop consistency in practicing this tactic. If it seems strange at first, remind yourself how much likelier people are to follow through successfully with an answer they developed themselves rather than one that you gave them.
  3. Learn to trust in others and let go -- Trust is the most valuable lever a leader has. Both in the trust they give others and the trust they receive from others. Stephen Covey's masterpiece "The Speed of Trust" is a must read and has the possibility to change your whole approach to work.
  4. Develop your influence muscles -- All of the above tactics will help you move away from "ordering others on what to do and how to do it" and towards "leading others in discovering creative approaches to solve tough problems". "Command and control" mindsets and mechanisms can never consistently scale beyond a small team (i.e., command and control is the tool of a Manager, not a Director).

The funny thing about the tactics above is that when you practice them consistently and effectively, you'll find that you won't have to spend so much time seeking out director roles, they'll find you.

Image courtesy of iurii (Shutterstock)