10 ways to develop managers with a ‘geek interface’

Are you an engaging manager?In many technical businesses, the biggest talent management challenge isn’t recruiting people with the right technical skills but having the managers with the right knowhow and who fit the culture of the organisation. Not just any managers, but managers with a ‘geek interface’ – people who understand our innovations and who can talk with both our technical experts and our commercial customers.

Sure, we could promote our current experts into management jobs. It’s trickier to recruit a manager who meets the criteria than promote someone we can mould and develop into management material. But, some of our people simply don’t make great people managers.

There are at least two key reasons for the difficulty in transitioning experts to managers.

You may well find more in your business. Firstly, we have recruited those people for their technical competence and rewarded them for these. This reinforces a focus on developing their technical career rather than engaging with the organisation’s business goals and strategies. Their biggest fear is that their product or, worse, their skill set, is falling behind the latest way of doing things. As a result, they can be essentially segregated from the business issues – adept at solving technical problems but not business problems.

Secondly, these people are attracted to stretching tasks, projects of significance, clear delivery requirements and a great deal of autonomy. Performance targets may be set that allow them to decide how and where work gets done. Again, these are not always requiring them to engage in broader workings of the business. When you compare this work with that of managers – who need to be present, engaged with the business goals, managing the ambiguity created by conflicting demands – you could, frankly, plot them at two ends of a scale.

So what can we do to develop our technical experts into managers?

1. Articulate the management competencies your organisation needs. If you don’t already have these defined for your organisation, a great place to start is www.managementstandards.org.
2. Make ‘management’ an attractive career option by encouraging experts to see it as a way to “get the big things done right”. Present management roles in suitable experts’ language – such as a “sequence of problems to solve and continuously improve”.
3. Consider having clear technical career paths where high performing experts can be promoted without having to take on people management responsibilities.
4. Give people visibility of both technical and managerial career paths with you.
5. Expose your whole pool of employees to management tasks as part of their current job. For example, rotate responsibility around team members for managing projects, supported by a mentor who is a project management specialist on more critical projects.
6. Provide courses and seminars to give experts some business models to apply. We are talking about people who like to know what they are doing! Support with management coaching to help them apply their learning to people management tasks.
7. Apply a range of technical and managerial criteria at recruitment and select some people at entry level with management potential but who may not be the best technical experts.
8. Place recruits on development plans that build their strengths as well as address their weaknesses across both technical and managerial skills.
9. Actively plan for succession from first line management upwards. Get front line experts to manage interns, then graduates, then other front line employees.
10. Avoid being a training department for other local companies – know likely points when employees start leaving (often, around a three year anniversary).