My first discussion on becoming a manager came when I was in my mid-20s. My manager approached me, and he said, I think you should be a manager; what do you think? By all considerations in tech at the time, I was very young and relatively inexperienced in all facets of life. My response was immediately absolutely NO! A few year later I was part of a restructure and moved into a role that did not generate the passion I felt in my previous role as a PS architect. I decided that I needed to find a new challenge and decided to leave the company I worked at. A few months passed by, and at a conference, a leader from my original company came to me and said that he was rebuilding the team that I was a part of and that it would be great for me to join and have a team lead role. Still, in my 20s, I still felt that I was not experienced enough; I did feel that the team lead role was one that I could bridge and jumped on the opportunity.
Why do I share this backstory? The ask to become team lead was because I was a technical thought leader in a relatively niche product. How often have we seen technically skilled, I do not mean in technology only but technically proficient in your specific job area, individuals take on a leadership role because they are great at what they do daily? All too often. It is great to give professionals a path for growth, especially if they are interested in a leadership path. However, these highly skilled individuals are often not provided the tools and training to transition from their previous roles to the new leadership function. The lack of training to prepare you for a management role can create a poor experience for you and your team. In this post, I will talk about how I handled this transition and hope you will find some tips here for yourself as you seek to move into a leadership role.
As a young technical leader, I knew I had many areas I had to pick up on, and gaining the respect of my team was extremely important to me.
My first step was to define what I wanted my brand to be. Each leader-to-be needs to determine the attributes you wish to be recognized by. Write those down. Identify the gaps in the brand you want to establish and define a plan on how you fill in those gaps. Identifying your areas for development will also assist in determining what your strengths are and where you can lean on your team as a result of your gaps. Defining your brand should be a collaborative activity with a mentor or peer that you are learning from. Many first-time technical professional to manager transitioners fail at recognizing that they do not need to be the expert at everything, which leads me to my next item.
Spend a lot of time getting to know your team. I recommend creating a questionnaire of items that you will want to ask your team on your first 1:1 that is not business-related. Examples of questions to include are their hobbies, passions, and what motivates them every day. Creating a trusting human connection with the individuals on your team is extremely important for a relationship that you expect to last a long time. As part of this process, I also recommend starting a conversation around development. Many team members worry that their progress to a promotion or development will be lost when a new manager joins. This point in time is truly a high-risk moment for a team as team members may feel demotivated and seek a role elsewhere.
Every day our teams are presented with new challenges. Many of which leaders do not see. Some leaders even walk into an organization making assumptions of what needs to change to eliminate existing challenges. That is a big mistake and an arrogant one as well. One of the questions I ask my team members is, if you had my role, what is the one big rock you would move/change? The insights you will gain from hearing directly from your team will allow you to create a plan based on reality. Asking them will also surprise your team members as many have not experienced a front-line leader asking them this question.
Your team does not function in a vacuum; part of your role will be to work on removing roadblocks for them with other groups. This will only work if you can influence other teams on their work. Put together a cross-functional map. Who are the other teams you need to work with? Who are the stakeholders, influencers, and doers on those teams? Once you have created this map, set up a 1:1 with as many people in those organizations as possible. Understand their charter, MBO’s/KPIs, and each individual’s motivations as you meet with them.
Define who you want to be
You do not need to be the technical expert
Know your team
Know the challenges facing your team
Know the teams you will need to work with
Learn every day
As a new leader, you will learn something new every day. You will no longer be the expert you were in your previous role. Not being an expert can be very uncomfortable for many people; however, if you understand this early on, you can quickly work on developing the new skills to become the amazing, empathic, multiplying leader you want to be!
The recommendations I provide are not an exhaustive list; I highly recommend reading “The First 90 Days”, “The Sales Engineer Manager’s Handbook”, “Strength Finders 2.0”, and any other leadership book you can get your hands on.