“He’s a great technologist, but he goes through his assistants like a buzz saw.”
This was my colleague sharing about an amazing technical engineer who was developing ground-breaking new technology, yet driving the HR department to exasperation. To keep him in the organization by allowing him to reach higher pay grades, the company had promoted him to a manager, where he oversaw a handful of employees; employees who essentially became his assistants. These employees turned over frequently and were almost always unhappy due to the menial level of work they were given and the lack of career growth. HR tried to intervene, but the head of the department was too afraid of losing the star innovator to make any real change.
Not everyone is cut out to be a manager
You might recognize this scenario. It’s common practice to promote our best technical experts into management so they can continue to receive salary increases. This applies to all kinds of experts; technical, creative, or any specialized subject matter.
But this can create an interesting paradox—promoting experts into management actually takes them away from their expertise and places them into a role with the primary responsibility of managing people. And they may not have either the skills or the desire to manage.
Additionally, promoting technical experts into management often leads to another element of organization ineffectiveness: too many layers. When these technical experts are expected to remain technical experts and manage people, they are usually given just one or two direct reports. This leads to an organization with too many managers and too many levels of management.
How can you reward excellent experts who have reached the top of their limited pay grade? How can you achieve both technical depth and managerial leadership without forcing your best technical experts onto the management track?
The solution lies in the structure of your roles, rather than the skills (or lack thereof) in your people.
Make your structure great for your people
One of our org design principles at PeopleFirm is to make your organization great for your people. It’s a win-win: what’s good for people is good for business. Most employees want fulfilling challenges and career growth opportunities. But career growth doesn’t necessarily mean progression into management. Sometimes employees just want to learn new things or have more influence.
Creating a structure that allows both technical experts and people managers to play to their strengths is the key to that success. But this may be a big shift in how your organization views roles.
Here are a few practical ideas to get you started:
- Recognize these are different skills sets and hire a people manager. Management is a unique and important set of abilities, not just a few bullets added to another role. As a recent study at Google found, the skills employees most sought in a manager are traits like being a good coach, empowering the team, listening. Last on the list was technical ability. Think of what skills and experience you need in a good manager and hire for that. Structure the role so a manager actually has time and core responsibilities around managing people.
- Elevate the role of technical leader. Hiring a people manager may mean that a subject matter expert is still needed at the strategy level. Define what technical leadership looks like for your organization and create a role for it. Clearly define the roles, accountability, and decision-making authority between this technical leader and the people manager. There will likely be some dotted line reporting relationships and both leaders may need a seat at the table.
- Support dual career ladders. Creating separate tracks for technical leadership allows a path for experts to advance in their careers without being forced into management. But for this to work, the pay grades of technical leadership will need to be elevated and the stepping stone roles for both technical and management tracks will need to be defined. Culturally, this also means that people managers will need to get comfortable supervising technical experts who make as much or more money than they do.
- Define what “influence” means for the technical leader. We’re not saying that you should just open up higher pay grades for the experts. To earn that higher pay, they should exert greater influence, either internally or externally. What does greater influence look like? Define it so expectations are clear.
Putting it into action
Let’s revisit our technical engineer from our story above. In the end, HR brought in an outside perspective to help the organization re-think their roles and operating model. They defined what they needed from their technical leaders and created roles that topped out at the same pay grade as the managementtrack. The junior technologists, who acted as assistants to the senior technologists, were combined under a dynamic manager who excelled in people development and was good at working across the organization.
Don’t get stuck with managers who don’t want to be managers. Re-think your structure. You’ll have a stronger organization and your people will thank you for it.
About the authors:
Dave Moyle has over 30 years of experience in organizational design and development, leadership development, HR management, HR professional development, and training. Driven by his personal mission to help others reach their potential, Dave has spent most of his career designing and implementing solutions to improve individual, team, and organizational performance. He is known for his ability to quickly develop relationships, get to the root causes of complex issues, and develop pragmatic, effective solutions.
Abby Coppock is known for digging in and getting the job done. She specializes in strategic communication, and is skilled at asking the right questions and creating tools that resonate with diverse audiences. She has a collaborative and engaging style, and enjoys moving from theoretical ideas to concrete solutions by building a great working partnership with the end user. She has a background in training, project management, and research, and over 13 years of experience working on projects that span the technology, government, and non-profit sectors.
PeopleFirm is a management and HR consulting firm dedicated to helping you achieve that ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. We focus on effective tools, measurable outcomes, real results, and getting your people out of their seats and engaged in your company’s growth. We use people strategy, talent management, organizational performance, and change management to help you partner with your people to build an organization that excels in today’s new world of work. People are your last competitive frontier. Make them count.
Your people = your success.