Hello! I build IT teams and design IT Systems for startups and nonprofits. I consistently encounter the same problems, so I set out to create a series of guides to help others navigate the IT Ecosystem. You can learn more about my philosphies via my website dave-bour.com or via my weekly newsletter.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve been working to make the change from high-performing individual contributor to a manager. If you’re in the same boat, you may be wondering when you’re going to be trained on how to make this transition. The truth is that work will fall to you and can be achieved through a combination of enrolling in a Master’s degree program, mentorship and leadership trainings, or self-study and reflection.
The tools, habits, and traits that have you’ve gotten you this far in your career are excellent to use for developing the next stage of it; but in order to succeed, you need to identify and adopt new tools. What you’ll find below are shortcuts from my personal experience. They were forged in the IT field, but the concepts generally apply to all fields.
Changing The Way You Think
Transitioning from a hands-on, technical role into a manager, director, or any strategic position will be the most challenging task in your career. It requires a entirely new way of seeing work.
Let’s be honest— you’ve become a high-performing individual contributor (IC) because of your ability to:
- do the work (productivity), or,
- champion a solution/be the subject matter expert (SME) (knowledge), or,
- stay hyper-focused on developing your personal skillset (interest-driven dedication).
But your success as a manager will be defined by your ability to:
- Achieve outcomes without performing the work (delegate), and,
- Learn how to develop another human being (develop empathy), and,
- Elevate your perspective (Big-Picture Thinking), and,
- Function inter-departmentally (Socialize/Compromise change).
Let’s look at how success as a manager differs from success as an IC.
‘Doing the work’ and delegation are different approaches to the same outcome.
To date, you have excelled by executing a solution. We need a domain? No problem — setup some AD controllers. We need 802.1x? No sweat, you knew this was coming and added the NPS role to the server, utilizing LDAPS for authentication to the corporate WiFi network— what’s next?
As a manager in this example, your success would no longer depend on your ability to execute this project, rather, it will shift to guiding or training a direct report to identify solutions and project plan (scope/schedule/resource/task list/etc) it. While you’re ultimately still on the hook for a successful outcome, you can’t achieve it by doing the work yourself.
Sherpas do not take people to the peak by carrying them.
To practice, we can try an exercise — do you practice yoga? In the Western world, we equate yoga with asana or, holding poses.
Exercise: Using only your words, guide me into a forward fold. No touching, no demonstrating — tell me how to move my body to achieve this outcome.
Did you start by telling me to bend over? Where, at my knees? Oh, my hips. Okay <proceeds to dump body in a forward motion, achieving a 10% bend>. Now what?
Just for fun, let’s look at one of the answers to this exercise but as with any mountain clumb, there are many paths that you can take. While some might be better paths (more efficient/less taxing), there is not one correct path.
- Stand up straight with your feet together, hands at your sides.
- Relax your shoulders, chin up, stick your chest out.
- Engage your abs and lift up out of your hips.
- Stick your butt out and slowly bend forward at the hip…….
Knowing how to do something isn’t the same as telling someone how to do the thing.
In a nutshell, this is delegation and learning to do it properly will ensure you become a multiplier of successful projects versus the 1:1 ratio of projects you execute to products that complete. Despite delegating the work, guiding successful outcomes can become a signficant expression of your creativity and you’ll be afforded the autonomy to showcase it.
Permit Questions To Become Your Answer
The ability to execute a task is entirely different from directing execution of a task.
A key to successfully scaling and sustaining productivity will be to come a multiplier. Julie Zhou’s book, The Making of a Manager, can be considered required reading on the topic.
For now, let’s take an example of building a server. As a former high-performing IC, you know how to build a server — and so will some of your direct reports. Others, however, may not have the experience and you will need to guide them without doing it for them. You can achieve this by asking questions such as:
- If I were not here, where could you find that information?
- What do you think would be some good first steps?
- How can we break this down into manageable chunks?
You’ll notice that most of these questions are designed for your report to lead the conversation. While you can provide the direction by just telling them how to make the server, you’ll ultimately set them up for success by teaching them how to fish. You’re helping them equip their own toolset for future projects, too.
As an example, you may know that without a centralized authentication authority, staff are logging into desktops with local accounts. You also know that Active Directory is an extensible architecture that expands to Microsoft’s Azure AD for a hybrid cloud deployment, setting the stage for a hybrid-deployment which would be great for an eventual transition to a primarily SaaS based environment. In your weekly 1:1 with a Systems Engineer, you may ask, “Hey — what do you think we should do about all of the local computer logins?” and they say “At my previous job, everyone had an active directory account to login to their computers.” So you say “That sounds like a good idea, do you think that would be a good fit for us, too?”
In the example above, you’re beginning to achieve strategic outcomes without executing the work yourself. This is the shift that is necessary for you to succeed as a manager.
Again, no single path is the correct one and your may have direct reports who become frustrated or disheartened by your use of the Socratic Method. In order to avoid this, you’ll need to learn when to offer support and when to hang back. The unique application of these tools can be called your management style.
Develop Your Management Style
Not all of your reports will need the same degree to direction. Identifing and adapting your management style to the preference of your reports will be required.
In his book, The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene outlines strategies ripe for adoption to navigate a wide variety of human interactions. At a generic level, his insights provide recommendations that are useful to employ when making requests of others. With this insight, you will come to recognize certain dynamics in your relationships in all direction — laterally, downwards, and upwards.
The particulars of your adopted framework will be influenced by what has worked for you in the past and must be a reflection of the feedback you’ve received as an IC. Have you been told you are a strong leader or highly demoncratic? Do people tend to follow your lead or are you a great facilitator of outcomes through group discussion and debate? Some of your characteristics should be reinforced while others may need to be balanced.
While the style you choose is up to you, there are some components of management you must learn to adopt. They are:
- Understanding the role of HR
- Systems of rewards and punishment, accountability and responsibility
As a personal example, I have a high degree of conviction in my determinations and often trust my sense of direction without being able to fully articulate the extension of it. Early in my career, I would aggressively attack every problem with a solution but was once under the direction of a manager who preferred a ‘wait and see’ approach. Whenever there was a potential issue, I would offer up plans and he would often respond by saying “Let’s wait and come back to this in a few days/weeks” and it would drive me crazy! It felt foolish to let problems exist in what could be a well-oiled network machine. Over time, as I witnessed problems disappear entirely or be resolved simultaneously, I came to appreciate this perspective and often employ it myself as a manger. Not every problem requires the respect of a dedicated solution.
Soft Skills and Making Decisions
Akin to a doctor developing their bedside manner, IT staff should do the same with their ‘desk-side manner’.
A successful technical expert has trained themself to understand problems from a technical perspective — how systems and software interact and communicate. As your focus shifts to people management, this will be replaced by a need to understand how people use technology and how your team members prefer to work with it. This transition will be reflected in the questions you pose to work through problems:
- How would I feel if I had this problem?
- How will this change affect a person’s workflow?
- What factors drive my employees’ interests?
You can develop this skill through exercises in patience and reflection upon personal experiences. Empathy will influence your decion making processes, but also necessary will be identifying and understanding the differences between urgency and importance.
Your relationship with time will combine with your acute business and technical acumen to unlearn the habit of giving everything equal attention.
This is important. Where your attention goes, energy flows. Your new role will require correctly identifying and separating what is urgent, important, and what is not to direct resources towards high value problems.
Look at the following examples through the lens of an IC and classify them as urgent, important, or both.
- Person A cannot login to email because they forgot their password.
- A firewall issue is preventing an entire office from accessing the internet.
- Your CFO is asking for an updated Q2 IT budget for next week’s team meeting.
Now, look at the examples again through the lens of an IT Manager or Director and classify them as urgent, important, or both. Did your answers change?
Deciding not to pay attention to a particular problem will feel like inaction and not come naturally to an IC, however, you will become more comfortable with it as you expand your field of view.
Finally, avoid becoming a reactive decision maker. Working from a reactive state is a short-term mindset and creates a false sense of urgency. The risk of burnout and malaise increases the longer your team operates in a state of urgency and reaction. Instead, operate from a long-term viewpoint and train your thought processes to bring the horizon into focus.
Much like moving from a first person point of view to that of a third person in a video game, transitioning into a managerial role shifts the focus of your success one level backwards.
IC’s are often subject matter experts and are accustomed to designing and implementing solutions. An IC operates ‘in the weeds’, a manager should land to visit but maintain a long term perspective. You’ll have a wider field of vision, but others will fill in for the lost depth — it’s now your responsibility to set the agenda and empower them to enact it. In order to develop a high level mindset, you may wish to ask the following questions when approaching initiatives.
- How do we achieve alignment between our processes and organizational objectives?
- Which metrics should we monitor to indicate success or identify improvement opportunities?
- Which silos can we move to consolidate into a unified system?
Generally, these questions are all concerned with effects over a long period of time and adopts the same principles as investing early — small gains will compound and add up to big wins.
To excel here, some of the tools you can employ are:
- Creating a roadmap or strategy that aligns with company OKRs.
- Identify your major problems and work backwards towards solutions.
- Create templates and guides for immediate efficiency gains that compound over time.
The commonality between these tools is planning. Operating from wide field of vision is much like going hiking, being with a destination, then you need a map, then you need to plan a route. In both cases, a backup plan may prove to be very useful.
Furthermore, your responsibility as a manager will be to structure a team and this work requires working backwards from a destination.
Fostering a good culture is partially accomplished through guarding it.
In the process of becoming a manager, nothing has held me back more than knowing when, how, and who to hire.
Learning when or who to hire may be an improvement opportunity for you if you are:
- Consistently overworked,
- straddling multiple iniatives and playing multiple roles, or
- never able to prioritize high level thinking.
Even after 7 years of hiring and managing people, I’ve gotten better at when to hire, but I still hire junior candidates over senior candidates. It is evident when I have a team of 5, but find myself identifying and leading projects. This is a difficult lesson to learn through experience and you will save yourself a great deal of anxiety by mastering these concepts with a mentor.
Similarly, learning how to hire will be a baseline skill that all managers must develop. Some key skills that hiring managers will need are:
- Crafting a neutral and inclusive job description (JD),
- Understanding role budgeting, setting appropriate compensation bands, and learning which perk levers are available to offer candidates,
- Identifying candidates on LinkedIn, through your network, and/or by reading their applications to your job posting,
- Creating an interview panel, skills assessment, and scoring rubric,
- Encouraging candidates in offer acceptance and throughout their start.
If you have the benefit of an internal recruitment team, you can lean heavily on them for all of these items. If not, you may be researching and copying what has worked for others until you develop confidence in your assessment capabilities.
Luckily, there are many interview tools that exist to give you a starting point. From experience, I can say that this is an area of management where you will wish to exercise as little creativity as possible. Established pathways for how to structure teams, creating job descriptions, and how to interview and grade candidates exist for a reason and you should have plenty of autonomy as a manager to focus your creative efforts on achieving outcomes.
Guidelines for a Successful Transition
Here are some tips I’ve learned since making the transition to a strategic leadership position in IT.
Mentorship & Reading
Becoming a manager requires accepting responsibility for enabling others to succeed — taking that lightly, or even unknowingly, is setting yourself, and those who report to you, for failure.
Many IT people have learned by tinkering and testing — in short, experiencing. While this is beneficial in figuring out how components of a finite system work together, it spells destruction when managing people.
If I were to chart my own path again, I would certainly include a mentor, but the titles below helped me bound up the steps to developing good management principles.
- The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou
- The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change by Camille Fournier
- The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins
Obtain Non-Technical Certifications
If you haven’t already, identify and achieve certifications in project management and service and process management to develop your business acumen.
The skillset needed to succeed as a manager is entirely different from the skillset that helped you succeed as an IC. You’ll no longer be configuring the settings, but instead be developing a budget and timeline, justifying costs, and writing policies. You’ll need to play the politics game and advocate for projects by building consensus across departments and showing the benefits in charts and slide decks.
The following are certifications empowered me to speak the managerial language.
- Certified Associate Project Manager, Project Management Institute (CAPM — the PMP’s little sibling)
- ITIL v4 Foundations
- Yoga 200HR Training
Learn to Inspire
One of my strengths as a manager is facilitating understanding through the use of analogies. I love to engage in philosphical discussions that intersect with business — learn about human development, work/life balance, and motivation techniques. These concepts will supplment leadership strategies and there are a great number of influential figures in this arena.
Stealing from them until you’re able to develop your own perspective on work and life is highly recommended.
Become a Facilitator
As an IC and SME, you’ve learned to help your customers ‘cut to the chase’ and give you the problem so you can design the solution. As a manager, you’ll instinctively want to do the same — hand out solutions to problems.
Prior experience has taught you how to address a problem in the way you would address a problem. Going forward, others will be addressing the problems and telling them how is robbing your reports of their ownership over solutions.
Think of it this way — there are many ways to increase customer satisfation through helpdesk tickets such as implementing SLAs and metric tracking. Some managers will increase resources to address problems, provide additional training to support staff, or add pathways to request support. These are good initiatives but they all lack participation and exercise with your staff to re-establish what it means to support someone. Ask your team this question but refrain from dominating the conversation and you’ll gain some insight that no survey will provide.
Ask your team to go out and submit a support case with any external party. Maybe they bought a rotten apple from Whole Foods and want to return it. Maybe a package from Amazon didn’t show up.
In tandem with metrics and SLAs, provide an opportunity to empathize and examine qualitative self-assessment questions. Upon closing a support ticket, ask them to put themselves in the shoes of the person they helped and answer the following questions, “Was someone there when I needed support? Were they knowledgable in their answers and guidance?” If the answer is yes to both questions, it was likely a positive experience. At the end of the day, isn’t that the goal?
Understand Modern Managerial Practices
Research and adopt modern managerial practices. Learn how to write a 30/60/90, format a 90 day review, ask yourself what you want to accomplish through 1:1’s. Challenge the frequency of meetings and their goals to identify the core reasons for their existence. This will not only help you keep focus by reducing noise, but is a critical time management skill.
There is a wealth of knowledge in Harvard Business Review and other sources which has been distilled through innumerable blog posts — free to find through Google. Good managerial practices spread like wildfire — there are no secrets here. However, to be successful, you must combine this with your practical experience which is the best part of the process — learning to lead in your own unique way.
These recommendations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organizational technology postures and IT management practices. Please reach out if you’d like a consultation customized for your business.