Techies to Leaders

We recently created a new leadership team within our ITS unit.   The team consists of four Associate Directors and a group of Coordinators.  The Associate Directors have had varying leadership roles in the past, but many of the coordinators are taking on new responsibilities and transitioning from technical roles to leadership roles.  Throughout my years in Higher Education I have always found it a challenge developing leaders within the technology sector, especially those with a strong technology background.   I remember when I moved from being a Statistical Analyst to becoming a Manager and I missed the old work..  I liked working in the trenches, dealing with grad students and using my technical skills to solve problems.  It was very rewarding work and it was something that energized me.

It was hard to give that up, as it is for many people, and it is also hard learning a whole new set of skills.   Some people feel drained at the end of the day by leadership and we are not always helping them by moving them ‘up’ into these leadership roles.  I have had a few of these situations where people just didn’t get energized by their new role and it was difficult to watch their passion disappear.  Addressing these issues can be challenging, but usually at the end of the day there is a sense of relief on both sides if you do address them early and deliberately.

As an organization we have a responsibility to ensure that we recruit and retain people.  Retention can take many forms, but part of it may be providing people with a career path, and that may include helping people move into a leadership role.   If we do this we need to give people the tools they need to succeed and we need to support them.  As an aside, there is often a challenge of creating career paths that stay within the technical stream.   Putting technical leadership on par with more traditional leadership can be problematic.   If you have this one figured out let me know.

In a recent article by Robert M. Fulmer in the Wall Street Journal, Do Techies Make Good Leaders, he highlights how deliberate we need to be in order to develop these people.  He hints that maybe it is harder to develop technical people into these roles and we thus need a different focus.    He points to five areas  that I think are very important for devloping all leaders.

  1. Formalize the System
  2. Focus on the Data
  3. Value Leadership
  4. Engage the Audience
  5. Encourage Coaching

I found the insights in section two to be extremely revealing and simple.   He suggests you measure leadership on the individual’s ability to complete performance development plans for their subordinates, along with their ability to advance the careers of those who report to them.   I never really thought about intentionally tracking that information.   To me it is all about developing a talent management plan, creating succession plans and changing the dialogue we have with our staff.

Creating leadership within an organization starts at the top.  We need to model the behaviour that we want to see and this isn’t always easy.  If you live within the technical side of the discussion, you probably won’t be developing good leaders, unless they have good mentors outside the organization and that is where good coaching comes in.

We recently hired a new person in our organization.  They came from outside of higher ed and they  non-technical, but had a professional designation.  One of the first things we did was find a couple of people inside the broader organization, but outside of IT, and set up a coaching/mentoring relationship.  These people  understood HE and were more aligned with this persons professional designation.   Will this work?  I am not sure, but I hope so..   It is very dependent on the individuals involved.  This is simply part of our responsibility to developing leadership within our organization.

The other piece I liked in the article was about engaging the audience.  We need to respect the people we are developing into leaders and keep them engaged and growing their skills.  It reminds me of a book I once read called “Leading Geeks” by Paul Glen.  In the book they talk about unique aspects with in IT ‘people’, including how they work, how they are motivated, how they respond to leadership, their organizational culture and subsequently how you manage to full potential in this type of environment.      I think we have done some good things with our new leaders in ITS, but we need to keep our foot on the gas.  The tendency in IT is to push this off as everyone’s plate is too full, but I think that only impedes us in the long run.

So, at the end of the day is it hard developing leaders, yes.   Is it harder to develop IT leaders, maybe.  If we are deliberate and focus on the five areas mentioned above, we can certainly get there.





One thought on “Techies to Leaders

  1. Great post Bo, thanks. As true geek at heart, and also a newly appointed manager at Queen’s I understand the struggle of “enjoying the trenches”. Learning to delegate when appropriate, communicate to a wider non-technical audience, and navigating politics, are but of a few of those new skills I am polishing up on.

    Resources like the Queen’s Foundational Leadership course, EDUCAUSE Institute (as you’ve mentioned in the past), and the AAMC GIR Leadership Institute (for Medicine IT), all help to get the ball rolling.


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