When moving into a management or leadership role, is it best to go on a course designed for those from a technical background, or mix with other managers? That depends partially on who you are managing or leading, as Helen Wilcox explains.

Management skills training is a neglected area, leading managers to feel less confident in their ability to manage and lead people, according to a recent survey by SkillSoft.

The survey found that the top three tasks that managers in the UK are asked to undertake without receiving proper training are: 1. managing people, 2. project management, 3. leadership.

The survey also found that those considered most in need of training in the UK are 1. line managers, 2. supervisors, 3. senior managers. Around 2,000 UK employees were questioned and around a sixth of the global total were from IT companies.

There seems little doubt from that survey that the personnel on the ground see training in management and leadership skills as valuable, as not surprisingly do the training companies.

William Macpherson, CEO of QA-Xpertise, said: 'We can all be enhanced by correct training and learn something we can apply. It may be something you were doing intuitively but then you learn a framework to do it in.'

Richard Chappell, MD UK of Learning Tree, added: 'Someone inexperienced can be a good manager because that person has the right experience, skills set and style. Even for that person, courses will give some tips and tricks to help with challenges and avoid pitfalls.'

Not everyone may agree that leaders can be made. But a debate on whether or not leaders are born could fill more than one article, so for the purposes of this article, let's assume that the Skillsoft survey is correct, and some training is worthwhile for your leaders
and managers.

Which brings us to the next dilemma: are you trying to train your top brass to be managers or leaders? The difference between management and leadership is another area that could be debated over several pages, but we can only skim quickly over some arguments.

Coach4Growth's definition is: 'In order to be fully rounded, you must have the ability to manage the day-to-day tasks and deliver results, while seeing the opportunity for change and the big picture.'

Bill Walker, commercial director, QA-Xpertise, said: 'I think the difference between leadership and management is that you can learn management skills, but leadership is more what grows with the team. A course, however, can teach you leadership tasks.

'For instance, Richard Branson is a great leader. He's got charisma. You can't teach those skills but you can learn by studying what makes him a leader, and then try and apply what you've learnt.'

Let's make another assumption then that training in management and leadership is necessary for your top dogs, and go on to the question of what value you gain by sending them on a course specifically aimed at IT leaders/managers.

Tailored or not

'There's huge value in having a course tailored to your experience,' Macpherson said. 'But on a closed course there can be an advantage to mixing disciplines - you can see the value of different bits of the business and see common problems. Its usefulness also depends on the seniority of the person.'

Chappell said: 'If you are studying something with a technical bias, for instance ITIL®, a technical course is appropriate. But for more generic courses, such as on presentation, public speaking, management skills, it's useful to have a broader mix because individuals mix with general managers and would-be managers.

'On the other hand, if you are a technical person, and you've always been in a technical role, it could be a good thing to go on a course with a technical bias.'

Salma Shah, director of Beyond, believes that technical leaders often require tailored training, depending on who they will be in charge of. 'Within one department an IT director or manager needs to manage very different types of individuals whose roles vary greatly,' she said.

'They may also have a diverse team with virtual or overseas members. They may be managing contractors, which requires different leadership skills. Often, IT is not a profit centre but a cost centre with internal customers. As companies often outsource part of IT, a high level of IT is required in-house. They need to have closer links to the business, but retain depth of knowledge.

'You need to understand what sort of people the leader is leading and the point of the business. An IT leader may typically be managing technical people. The skills required to manage them are quite different from some other roles. How do you motivate a technical mindset? Project managers and business managers have different mindsets. You may be able to deal with a project manager more directly, as they are used to working to deadlines.

'A leader needs to recognise, for instance, that some developers will struggle with time management as they lose themselves in problem solving and forget about deadlines while the help desk agent may lose their temper or get frustrated with overbearing clients. The style and skill required to lead this group will need to be flexible. One way will not suit all.'

Walker, however, thinks such arguments can come undone , particularly if you are working with a cross section of other roles: 'You can say technical people are motivated in a different way, but so are sales (by money) and operations (perhaps by fantastic processes).

'It's still good to learn with others to work as a complete team, rather than have IT in a bunker. I'm a firm believer that IT must be integrated with the business.'

One thing that is hard to dispute is that for a manager taking on a team in a subject area he doesn't know, it would be useful to get a manager's overview of that area. 'Then you can't get hoodwinked and can talk the language,' said Chappell.

So in deciding what sort of course to pick, looking at what the role is, the seniority, who will be managed, and the manager's own background is essential. Luckily, there are courses to suit all variations available, whether you require one for IT professionals or the wider management team, with titles of courses varying from 'managing virtual teams' to 'stepping up to management'.

Check course content

Shah advises that when buying a course, the purchaser should also check course content closely. She gives the example of a time management course, which could be very general with common sense suggestions, or may go deeper, teaching you how different personalities manage time differently, and how to influence people to get things done on time.

Shah is also very much an advocate of customised courses mixed with longer term mentoring: 'My belief is that you don't change people's personalities but you can change a behaviour. A two-day course is going to give you hints and tips, but as a leader you need to understand your own value and your own motivation. There are operational skills needed, plus understanding your own behaviour and motivation. That evolves over a period of time.

'Training alone isn't enough; follow-up through coaching and personal development is crucial to successful leadership.'