IT people can have great technical skills, which set them up for promotion, but are they the right skills to take them on to the next stage in their professional career? Simon Mitchell, Director at Development Dimensions International (DDI), provides a valuable insight into some of the difficulties emerging IT leaders face when moving from an operational to a leadership role and how companies can support them in this critical transition.

Being invited to take the next step into a management or leadership role can be flattering and exciting and understandably, many accept a rise in salary and status, without full consideration of the skills and attributes required to make the new role a success.

Yet as a person progresses into management, skills often become more about people and less about technical competency and those that are not given the support to gain these skills may find themselves floundering.

It is important to realise that leaders are not born with all the skills they will need in their roles and, faced with a skills gap, organisations can take one of two approaches:

1) let them acquire the skills on the job - the sink or swim approach or
2) provide structured skills acquisition and other relevant support. Not surprisingly, the latter offers by far the best results.

In 2008, DDI carried out a survey of 600 managers worldwide to look at how the transition to a leadership role has impacted the individual and what companies can do to support them.

The biggest and most stressful challenge to taking on a new leadership role was found to be the mental shift required for the next level of management, which includes new skills in communication, planning and team-building.

However, some of the stresses of moving to a leadership role were outweighed by the opportunity to make things happen, a greater respect from peers, increased self-esteem and the opportunity to help others succeed.

So how do IT companies identify their future leaders?

Wanting and having the right leadership skills are two very different things and, likewise, having the ambition for promotion does not mean the person will easily slip into a manager’s shoes.

The first way to identify new leaders is to set clear parameters of which leadership skills will be required in the role and how they will support the company’s overall objectives. By doing this, it is possible to identify candidates that have the necessary skills and mindset to take them into a leadership role.

There are many different tools, tests and simulations that can help support the identification process, ranging from simple tick sheets to psychometric profiles and half-day simulation exercises. For any of them to be genuinely useful, there needs to be an understanding from the start about which leadership skills are essential for the new role.

What are the indicators of successful leaders?

DDI identifies seven distinguishing features of a leader:

  • Personal awareness and the motivation to learn continuously;
  • a motivation to lead;
  • a willingness to get results from others and let others take the credit;
  • the ability to juggle many competing tasks and deal with ambiguity in the workplace;
  • a good track record;
  • speed of intellect to meet organisational needs and objectives;
  • an ability to balance results with the company culture.

Leaving the past behind

Leaders at all levels leave behind elements of their previous role with reluctance. After all, it was past achievement that got them into the role, and moving away from what they know can be uncomfortable.

Organisations need to recognise this and communicate to their new leaders what they should stop doing, as well as provide a clear path in terms of what they should be doing. This will help leaders understand what is expected of them, minimise workload stress and allow them to slip into their new role more comfortably.

It’s lonely at the top

IT is a fast-paced industry with considerable opportunity to fast-track along a career path. However, this means that less experienced leaders are being asked to take on larger workloads and responsibilities. As a result, they need to manage larger teams and take a more hands-off approach to daily activities, focusing more on strategy and team performance, for example.

Leaders can feel more isolated and afraid to admit that some new responsibilities represent a challenge for them. In many cases, the old support network of work colleagues and line manager may not be the right network to offer them constructive support in their new role.

Instead, in the absence of systematic organisational support, new leaders may look outside of the organisation for their support. This should be a warning sign to an organisation and could be indicative of a problem with the support culture within.

In DDI’s survey, 41 per cent of new leaders cited family and friends as their biggest support network. Work colleagues can also be a big source of support, although the use of work colleagues for support declines the higher up an organisation you go. Mainly this is due to fewer equal peers and fewer again with whom they might want to share feelings of vulnerability.

If a company can facilitate support networks through opportunities to share ideas and learn from others, it can help new leaders to fit in quickly, learn from their leadership peers and navigate their new, more political and ambiguous role effectively.

Classroom development combined with coaching and mentoring provides considerable support to new and emerging leaders, providing ‘safe spaces’ in which to examine and discuss weaknesses and to come up with an action plan of how to overcome them.

The earlier coaching is introduced the better, as it is more likely to be adopted and embedded in the management style, contributing to a sustainable culture of self-development within the organisation. If coaching is left too late or until a problem has arisen, there may be more resistance to change and inertia can set in.

Culture versus success as a leader

Having a supportive coaching culture in place can make it far easier for a new leader to grow and develop. However, no matter how competent a new leader, they may find a career transition harder in a conflicting culture.

If an organisation’s culture is highly process-driven, it is unlikely that a strategy based on innovation will be achieved, as process can stifle creativity and lengthen the time to market. Likewise, in a culture where innovation is evident, a strategy that restricts budget and implements more stringent processes may miss the mark.

Some company cultures are fairly closed, with people working more independently, rather as teams. The organisation may be more political, more difficult to navigate and there may be a reluctance to show any weakness for fear of it being exploited. In this environment it can be much harder to manage the transition.

Ensuring smooth transition

The damage to a company for inadequate leadership can be considerable. Failure to meet the requirements of a new role has a severe impact on the individual who experiences loss of confidence and a dent in their reputation, which up until a career transition was on a path to success. The company will suffer through lost talent and poor return on investment and the team will suffer through loss of motivation and productivity.

The following are all essential elements to the success of a learning and development strategy:

  • Facilitate interventions that allow leaders to understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Not least, doing this will help them get into the right mindset and engage in an ongoing programme of professional development.
  • Ensure new leaders know what is expected of them. Be clear about their own performance expectations and those of their team.
  • Provide ongoing training that maximises strengths, helps address weaknesses and enables new leaders to develop a developmental action plan.
  • Ensure that any learning and development is actually applied effectively at work and is measurable.
  • Provide appropriate coaching and mentoring for ongoing support and to help to identify further areas for development.
  • Provide other resources and processes to help support both new leaders and in turn their line managers.

Investment in the right support early on will enable new leaders to hit the ground running, identify and work on any weaknesses and provide a longer-term stability that can have a significant impact on organisational productivity and overall objectives.

This support should not just be about training, but should also cover the other, less obvious needs such as helping a shift in mindset, gaining an understanding of development needs, engagement and coaching.