„From top expert to mediocre executive – are there alternatives?“
Leadership Development, Organizational Development, People & Culture
The change in role from technical expert to executive is a common phenomenon, yet all too often it is encountered by participants who are ill-prepared. Nobody would get the idea to have a Windows 8 implementation performed by a specialist without any Windows 8 expertise and experience. But, interestingly enough, that is exactly what is happening on a regular basis when top experts are appointed to become executives. The „tools of the trade“ necessary to effectively manage people are quite often not provided to the person who is embarking on this path and, in a lot of cases, the need for them is not even perceived.
The end result quite often is that the performance of the (non-)led team lags behind the expectations and/or employee attrition occurs since top performers in particular tend to leave supervisors and not companies.
However, technically oriented areas are particularly dependent on retaining subject matter expertise since the building up of subject matter expertise and knowledge in most cases takes place over the course of years and a loss cannot be replaced easily. Furthermore, hardly any company can afford the reduction of a team‘s performance.
And, yet, I am encountering – time and again – people who are put into a management role without any real preparation – never mind even solid management and leadership training. A lot of them are in a state I like to refer to as „blissful ignorance“. Since management and leadership is not considered a trade to be learned in the respective companies, they initially are happy about the additional badges earned, and do not recognise at all or very late that they were put in a sink-or-swim situation without the sufficient skill set necessary for the management and leadership function. They try to the best of their knowledge and in good faith to master the task without noticing that, in water that is too cold, even the best swimmer can hardly survive.
So, what can be recommended now to those affected to become „fit for management and leadership“? From my point of view, there are three things that any executive (to be) has to ensure for himself or herself, since finding a secure standing in terms of management and leadership is virtually impossible without them.
- The knowledge of the theory of the basics of professional management and leadership.
- Consciously dealing with the inner transformation from specialist to executive.
- The selection of an experienced sparring partner for the discussing of management and leadership issues.
The theoretical knowledge creates the foundation and should include the most important aspects with respect to the tasks, tools and principles of management and leadership. Fredmund Malik‘s book „Managing Performing Living“ is a practice-oriented standard work. Alternatively, there are numerous courses available that teach the basics of management – generally combined with practical application exercises – (if you google the keywords „management training“ or „management certificate“, you will find offers galore).
The inner attitude as a significant impact on whether an executive triggers the willingness in others to be led by him or her. This makes reflecting on your own attitude just as indispensable as dealing with accepting responsibility no long just for your own action or non-action but also for the mistakes of others. In addition, it is important to find a way to deal with changed relationships with colleagues and to be able to handle to not yet have earned the respect and recognition that experienced executives receive. All this requires an internal adjustment process that should not be underestimated, in which external support, e.g. by a professional coach, can be helpful.
To conquer uncertainty or difficulties managing and leading – especially in the early phase - in a timely manner and without losses due to friction, it can furthermore make sense to discuss them with a counterpart experienced in management and leadership. In this, the dialogue should be protected by confidentiality and should – if possible – not be influenced by a difference in hierarchy level between the dialogue partners.
There is, however, another aspect that contributes considerably to whether or not a role change from expert to executive is achieved successfully. As early as upon making the decision for a management position, both the specialist and the company should very diligently check whether the existing profile of natural strengths is a match for the requirements of a management & leadership role. Studies of the Gallup Institute show that good performance can only be achieved where the natural thought and behavioural patterns – that is, the individual talents – to a high degree match the faculties required for the task.
In my experience, the talent profile for a management function considerably differs from that of an expert role. In a worst case scenario, there is therefore the chance that a TOP specialist is turned into a barely inspired and hardly inspiring manager. This situation, that is very dissatisfying to both the company and the employee, can at a later point in time only be solved with lots of sensitivity and reflection, if it is to be ensured that none of the parties involved experience any harm.
Conclusion: the consideration whether the intended role as a manager can actually be fulfilled with the same passion as the former expert function, taking into consideration the existing talents, should definitely be part of the decision-making process. If all parties involved arrive at the same conclusion and the management role is taken on, a suitable qualification and support must be ensured. Under those framework conditions, there is a good chance for the path „From top expert to successful manager“.