It’s not easy being the leader of a technical workgroup.
It’s even harder if you came up through the technical route yourself, so you know you’ve got to let all that technical stuff go. That has to happen to give you time to do the job they’re paying you for – which is to manage this group rather than just be the best-paid technician in it. But you may feel you can’t let the technical thing go, because let’s be honest, you’re also the best technician in the group and there’s nobody else to do what you do. In any case, you’ve got to keep your technical knowledge up.
What’s even worse is when you have become the manager of a group of technicians of which you used to be a member. Like meeting Michael McIntyre in the street with a “Go on then – tell us a joke”, they’re looking at you with an implied “Go on then, ‘manager’ – manage me.” It’s a real challenge. Why should they take orders from you if five minutes ago you used to be one of them? And if there is in the group a technician who also went for your job and didn’t get it, now you have a potential source of friction to deal with as well.
It’s not your fault. It’s in the nature of IT. As an industry, it hires technical specialists. It has to, because in all its forms, from Servicedesk to Systems Architecture, the name of the game is the mastery of technology. But that means that when IT needs internal leaders, it must choose from a pool of technicians. And instinctive technicians are not necessarily instinctive managers. They cannot be, because their ways of thinking are miles apart.
Ways of Thinking
The technician is dealing with a mechanism, of hardware or software or both, but ultimately of finite and defined parameters. When faced with a problem with that mechanism, the technician uses his knowledge and other references to work out which of those parameters are to be adjusted, by how much, to resolve the problem. This approach is known as ‘diagnosis’.
The manager is not dealing with mechanisms, but with situations, people and their agendas and politics, prospects, opportunities, and risks. There’s nothing to diagnose. The approach called for here is one of analysis, invention, and strategy. Two different ways of thinking.
Can a technical manager really be expected to make that leap quickly? Well if the technician remains as a technician while his job title changes, probably not. It takes time, to weigh up this new life, figure out how to approach it. Meanwhile the manager is beset with expectations, from the other technicians in the workgroup, from the senior manager who offered the promotion, from the workgroup’s customers. What are you going to do, newbie? Justify yourself. It’s not easy.
Staff on Your Side
Fortunately, there are some things you can do fairly early. Things that will get your staff on your side. And it starts from this simple concept – how do your staff benefit from you being their boss? And if that benefit is one they did not receive before you came along, the opportunity is an even more positive one.
So what we have to find is a way that our actions as manager benefit the staff. That makes it in their interests to support you and acknowledge your leadership.
If you’re just starting as manager, one benefit you can produce pretty early is to make their lives easier. Take a look through how they work now. Look for something that gets in the way, impedes them, takes the joy out of the work, annoys them. Then get everybody involved in your next project – to get rid of that annoyance by managing it out of their way. They’ll often take active part in a project that makes their lives better.
When managing technical workgroups, start from their job satisfaction. Be honest while doing it, because this workgroup does not exist to serve itself, but to provide for its customers. It still has to produce the requisite output – but do that in such a way that job satisfaction is also a product of the activity.
Find something they enjoy doing – learning new systems, conducting projects, being seconded to other functions etc. – and make that an incentive. Dangle it like a reward you know they want, and they can acquire it just as soon as all the work we have to do is finished. Then watch productivity rise as they view the consequent prizes.
Your job is not to be their ‘boss’ – that’s crass and patronising. Your job is to orchestrate your workgroup as resources to produce outputs on a departmental level. But you build into the way you do that, opportunities for your staff to extract feelings of success, completion and perhaps personal development from the work.
Spoonful of Sugar
But hey, you knew this when you were a kid. It’s what the lady with the funny hat and umbrella told you. “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.” Of course I read lots of management books by established, great management thinkers. But that doesn’t mean I should ignore Mary Poppins.
Regardless of how long you have been a manager, if you would like to look more deeply at the mental shift required to move from IT technician to manager, I’m running a one-day workshop on it in London on Tuesday 17th October 2017, and taking bookings now. We’ll spend a whole day learning about how to make your staff want to work for you. And we’ll also touch on how you can replace yourself technically, to give you the time to do that leadership thing properly.