The Pitfalls of Promoting Technical Experts

Last week we had a discussion about the amount of technical knowledge a supervisor needs in order to be effective. Thanks for your great comments about that!  I want to take the conversation further.

I’ll acknowledge that a first-line supervisor needs at least enough technical knowledge to know how to judge the work that subordinates are doing – or to know whom to bring in to help do that. However, once you get to the next level in the organization (and the higher you go after that), the less critical that technical knowledge is – until it’s simply no longer possible for any individual to have technical knowledge about all the areas he or she supervises (do you think Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz knows or needs to know about the mugs sold in his stores, the perfect way to make a latte, or how the music selections on sale at Starbucks this month were chosen?)

That said, here’s what I often see in my work: an organization that has no way to reward outstanding technical expertise other than to promote the person to a supervisory – and then managerial position, so that’s what they do. Let’s call our technical expert Kim. Kim is promoted to supervisor because of technical expertise so believes the most important work in the new job is to continue to increase that technical expertise. Besides, Kim loves the technical stuff, loves being an expert in it, loves being recognized, rewarded and promoted for it, and is happy to be placed in a position where the expectation is for continued growth in that expertise! And supervising staff?  Well, that takes a distant second place.

Now, fast forward several years. Kim is now the manager who has continued to develop technical expertise, and is now sought out nation-wide to speak at conferences and assist with tough technical problems. The organization is very proud of the great reputation they have developed.

Unfortunately, Kim’s employees are not doing so well. Feeling alternately micro-managed and ignored, as well as mistreated, they’re looking to form a union. They’ve met with a lawyer to see if they have any grounds for a lawsuit or harassment complaint. They’re considering talking to the newspapers about their concerns if top management won’t help them.  And poor Kim has no clue as to what’s going on because as far as this manager is concerned, the work group gets nothing but accolades and should feel great!

What happened? I would suggest that what happened is only partly Kim’s fault – and largely a systems problem in the organization. Promoting a technical expert who has no supervisory or managerial skills and expecting that person to just get in there and do what’s needed at a higher level is nearly always doomed to failure. So, what’s an employer to do? Here are a couple of thoughts:

• Create ways of rewarding technical expertise without promoting people into supervisory or management positions. For example , create a technical, non-supervisory career ladder (e.g., Accountant I, II, III).

• If you do promote a technical expert to a supervisory or managerial position, provide extensive training and mentoring to ensure success in those new skills. That means ongoing support and training – not just a one-time class.

Have you encountered this issue in the promotion of great technical people? Have you seen organizations that did it right? Please share your experiences. ~Daphne Schneider

3 responses to “The Pitfalls of Promoting Technical Experts

  1. Amen to that!!

  2. One way to steer clear of this problem is to identify what different skills and/or abilities the supervisory job requires compared with the sole contributor job. A good job analysis can help with that and once those skills have been identified, it’s possible to find an assessment tool (a predictive test) that can be used to determine whether candidates have the foundation to build on to become a successful supervisor. If that’s not an option, someone (the supervisor’s boss, for one) needs to do a clear-eyed assessment of the supervisor’s strengths and weaknesses, then work with the supervisor to help him or her grow in one or two areas at a time. There are great tools for such diagnostics. “For Your Improvement” from Lominger is an example of a resource that can be very helpful.

  3. Workplace Insiders

    Thanks so much for your helpful and insightful comments. Very good points indeed!

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