Whilst we have seen many patterns of management failure over the last 20 years, one standout is the frequency with which technical specialists get promoted into general management type roles without any diagnostics to understand if they are ready for this transition and without any individualised support once they are put into the role. In order to understand this transition better, let’s briefly look at what is different in a GM type role that technical specialists are going to struggle with.
First and foremost, in a GM type role the person will have to make decisions outside their core area of expertise. This is a real problem for technical specialists, as their self-concept is built around their mastery of an area of technical expertise. The second consistent issue is that technical experts rely on doing ‘actual work’ to get job satisfaction. When they step into a GM type role, the expectation is that they transcend the focus on tasks and learn to achieve through others. Some people make this transition quickly and well, yet others struggle and may not adjust at all, so what is going on?
In order to make sense of these different responses we need to look at a model that can explain this transition. The Harthill Leadership Development Framework (LDF) is the only model that we know of that adequately explains what is going on here. The LDF looks specifically at how a person ‘makes meaning’ of their world. In the LDF, the step from Technical Specialist to a broader outcome/achievement focus in encapsulated in the transition from Expert to Achiever.
The Expert typically has a closed model of the world, with boundaries defined by their core technical expertise. From this simplistic point of view other people are either technically proficient or ‘useless’ and can be discounted. This usually translates into a ‘my way is the right way’ approach to tasks and means that the vast majority of Experts struggle to delegate tasks. If they do delegate a task and ‘it’s going wrong’ (ie not being done the way they would do it) they will typically take the task back and do it themselves.
In contrast, the Achiever has an evolving model of the world. The Achiever accepts that other people may see the world differently, which could be useful to achieve the outcome. The Achiever will readily delegate tasks, but may assist with guidance and coaching when things are not going to plan. From the Achiever’s point of view the outcome is paramount, not how it is achieved.
In addition to models of the world and task delegation, Experts and Achievers differ greatly in their decision-making strategies. Experts tend to make decision on technical merit alone and will usually disregard costs, constraints and the people involved. Their focus is narrow on making the ‘right’ decision from a technical point of view and they seek efficiency, not effectiveness. This implies disregarding the wider implications for the organisation and the commercial dimension of decision making.
Achievers approach decisions quite differently, they recognise the wider context and try to take it into account. They will also take the skills and productivity of the people involved into account. Over time, most learn how to make commercially sound decisions. The focus for decision making for them is effectiveness first, efficiency second.
The final consideration in relation to a transition to general management is the ability to accept feedback. Experts only accept feedback on their technical skills and only from people with ‘superior’ technical ability. They are mostly unable to process feedback or ideas outside or in conflict with their model of the world. When presented with such feedback, it is either discounted as irrelevant or vigorously argued against.
In contrast, Achievers accept feedback in relation to their effectiveness in the role, which may include their ability to manage people or make good commercial decisions. They struggle with feedback on personal blindspots or with specific behavioural feedback, especially if the behaviour is ‘something they are good at’ (but overuse).
Taken together, it becomes quite obvious that Experts don’t make good general managers if they stay in this mode of operation. They work too much on the detail, spend too little time understanding their team and the wider business and they will often hide in their office or in meetings. In addition, they typically have only the most rudimentary skills in managing people and avoid development and performance conversations beyond technical skills development.
Because Experts are highly protective of their area (of expertise), they typically fail to engage with peers. For example, in leadership team meetings they will stay out of discussions not concerning their area, reject any ‘interference’ in their area, and usually don’t engage in strategy or commercial discussions beyond ‘contributing their expertise’.
We believe that the best way of improving the odds that someone who is considered for promotion in a GM type role will work out, is to use the LDF as a diagnostic tool before making such a decision. Most people considered for a GM role will have already transitioned to the Achiever action logic. If a person is still in the Expert logic, the exact form of the results can be used to assess if the person is ready to make the transition. In either case, providing coaching as part of the transition is the best form of support to someone stepping up into a GM role.