Q.I have been a very successful scientist, and now manage a small group of other scientists and technical staff. I find this role challenging, and have been given “developmental feedback” that I need to develop stronger leadership skills, and take on a more strategic view. I do understand this, but I am having trouble balancing the work with the management time needed. What is senior management really looking for?
A. Congratulations for being identified as someone who has the talent, drive, and dedication to make the transition from an individual contributor role to manager or leader. Your past work must have been an indicator to senior leadership of what you have to offer. Organizations with effective succession planning models look to in-house talent as they groom their new leaders. As you are experiencing, being recognized as having the potential to succeed is just the first step in what is defined by many functional experts as one the most challenging job assignments they have faced.
What isn’t clear is who gave you the developmental feedback. Was the message from your manager? Someone in executive or leadership development? Or did it come from an internal or external coach? Hopefully you see this message the way I hope it was delivered – in a positive growth oriented way with the support needed to build an action plan to accompany the feedback and new goals.
Often technical experts, like scientists, IT professionals, engineers, physicians or others working in a technical expert capacity are moved into management roles with little or no preparation for the change in demands of the new role. First, work with your feedback provider to identify one or two areas of leadership where he/she believes, and you agree, your skills can be developed. With each skill, make sure the area is specific, can be tied to actions which demonstrate the desired capability and identify ways you might benefit from the support of others as you strengthen this “leadership muscle”. These types of coaching assignments are typically practiced with internal or external support for at least six months before people believe they may achieve sustainable changes.
Dr. Alan Patterson, President of Mentoré, explains the difficulty some technical experts have in making the shift to a manager role. “Delegation is one of the most difficult skills for a successful technical leader to manage. To a great extent an expert’s success is based on high standards, producing high quality work and relentless pursuit of finding the best solution. As a leader, these expectations exist not only for himself/herself, but also for the individuals this person manages. The key for the leader in these situations is to articulate clearly the objective and expectations, and, most importantly, engage the team in a discussion to make sure that the expectations are clear. No “invisible report cards”- make sure that everyone understands what you expect and why.”
Dr. Bob Hewes, an executive coach with Camden Consulting Group, who has worked with many senior technical leaders as they grow towards organizational leadership roles, cites a pattern of challenges for functional experts. “Successful organizational leaders have grown from technical experts by making developmental shifts in being the smartest in the room to creating smart thinkers who get results; from “doing the work” to enabling the work to be done by others; by moving from a tactical to strategic viewpoint and developing broader business perspective; developing critical relationships to increase visibility and impact on the organization; and effectively managing change, within the organization and motivating the team for more effective execution.”
You will want to go through a similar developmental exercise as you work on your strategic capabilities. Being more strategic often means seeing the big picture, understanding the issues that are beneath the specific situation. Having a strategic view means looking outside your own organization at the business environment, customers, competition, and understanding how that impacts your organization and operations. Work on seeing the bigger picture, which will influence the tactics you choose to use. When you are working on something tactical, always be able to answer how it fits in the bigger strategic picture.
Senior leadership has selected you for promotion or increased responsibility because of a confidence level in your ability to succeed. The feedback you are getting is really what they want to see. I encourage you to ask for feedback as specific as it can be, and ongoing internal or external support through a coach.
Competitive organizations see the need for strengthening their leadership ranks, especially those of their technical experts.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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