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Challenges of Managing Technical Professionals

Challenges technical managers face

As a manager of technical professionals, you’ll be dealing with many challenges relating to the way you interact with your staff. While previously you have been concerned with getting the job done, you might now in be a position in which you must provide leadership.

Sometimes this involves getting highly intelligent and creative people to do their work within the confines of business realities, such as budgets, time frames, and company standards — even when they disagree with these.

The Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, provides an example of this kind of situation and what can happen if it’s not managed well. In the 1960s, RCA created the Spectra 70 computer series in an attempt to challenge IBM’s hold on the computer market.

The series failed for one main reason — managers didn’t align the work of engineers, who created and designed the computers, with the company’s vision and standards.

The result was a technically superior product, but one that couldn’t compete. It was too expensive and, contrary to management’s initial objectives for it, couldn’t run popular IBM software without costly modifications.

Along with the challenge of making sure the technical professionals who work for you know the goals of the organization, you may encounter four other types of challenges:

  • disparagement of the management function,
  • a lack of communication and teamwork, making it difficult to synchronize team members’ efforts,
  • the development of conflicts with organizational goals, and
  • perfectionism and disagreement with company standards.

Disparagement of management — As experts in their fields, most technical professionals are used to working independently, with little direct supervision. This can result in technical professionals considering the involvement of management in their work as unnecessary or irrelevant.


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Choosing an Appropriate Leadership Style

Transitioning into the role of managing technical professionals means your relationship with individuals who were previously your peers will change. As you transition into the role and develop new relationships with them, you’ll need to think about how you’ll lead these individuals and others who join your team. In other words, you need to choose a leadership style.

To achieve goals as a manager, you need to use a leadership style suited to your circumstances.

Leadership styles

You may think it’s best to stick to one leadership style so you’re consistent and so employees know what to expect from you. However, a leadership style that’s appropriate in one situation may be ineffective — or even offend employees — in another. So it’s important to vary your style according to the context.

For example, sometimes it’s best just to tell people what to do so that an urgent task can be completed. In other cases, this can prevent innovation and lead to resentment.

It’s common to label managers as having one particular style — for instance, as autocrats or facilitators. But to be really effective as a manager, you need to adjust the way you lead team members based on a variety of circumstances.

Consider an event like a sudden loss of data at a critical moment or even an accident that could endanger people’s safety. Would it make sense to gather everyone together and to debate what course of action to take? Probably not. It would be quicker and more efficient simply to direct team members what to do — and it’s likely they’ll understand the need for this approach.

But imagine introducing a completely new process that would affect the way everyone in the team completed their work. Just telling people what to do is likely to lead to resistance and feelings of frustration from the team.

Being able to use different leadership styles — and knowing when to do this — has two main benefits. You’ll be a more effective manager because you’ll know how to adapt your behavior to get the best results in different situations. And you’ll have a broader skillset at your disposal for supervising and working with employees.


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Moving from Peer to Boss

Moving into management

When you move from being a technical professional to being a manager, you’re likely to face several challenges — especially when it comes to dealing with your former peers. Not handling this situation well can cause tension within the team and lead to an unproductive work environment.

Cody is an ambitious programmer at a telecommunications software company. He’s outgoing and gets along well with his teammates.

When the team leader leaves, Cody is promoted to the position. This raises issues among some of Cody’s former peers, whom Cody now manages.

See each of the team members to learn about their issues with Cody.


Emily, a senior programmer on the team, is furious that she seems to have been overlooked for promotion to the position of team leader. She feels that her experience and knowledge make her better qualified to lead the team, and she resents Cody’s promotion to the role.


Danny was a great supporter of Cody — helping him settle into the team and standing up for him. Shortly after becoming Danny’s manager, Cody scheduled a meeting to discuss his perceived lack of quality in Danny’s work. Danny feels betrayed by a friend. He also thinks that Cody has become arrogant now that he’s in a position of authority.


As Cody’s closest friend on the team, Rick is used to confiding in Cody about personal issues and about other people on the team. When Cody takes over as team lead, their communication changes — it becomes more formal. And because Rick knows Cody so well, he tends to show a lack of respect sometimes.

How would you advise Cody to handle these individuals?

Well, you could advise Cody to accept that his relationships with his former peers will have to change, in light of his new role. You can also advise him to circumvent personal issues by focusing on what’s good for the business.

Furthermore, you can give him tips on how to establish his authority, and advise him on how to encourage a climate of openness within the team.

As you transition into management, you can use four strategies to help you establish new relationships with former peers. Acknowledge that relationships have to change; focus on what’s good for the business; establish your authority skillfully; and encourage a climate of openness.


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Analyzing Your Strengths as a Technical Professional

Knowing your strengths

As a technical professional, you have specific strengths that have helped you succeed. You probably also have some weaknesses that have hindered your work.

As you move into a management role, it’s important to assess your strengths and weaknesses so that you can consider how they’ll affect your performance as a manager.

Assessing your strengths and weaknesses can have two main benefits:

  • it will help you capitalize on your strengths and compensate for weaknesses as you develop a strategy for making your transition into management a success, and
  • it will reduce some of the stress associated with this transition.

Qualities of technical professionals

Technical professionals — such as IT specialists, engineers, technicians, scientists, and knowledge workers — generally share certain qualities and a particular approach to work.

Some of the qualities that successful technical professionals share may be inherent to their personalities.

For example, they tend to be practical, objective, and logical by nature — and this helped lead them into the professions they chose.

In addition, technical professionals have learned certain qualities that enable them to be effective in technical roles. They’ve developed and nurtured these qualities through their education, experience, and training.

Four particular qualities typically contribute to the effectiveness of a technical professional — being precise, task-oriented, adaptable, and self-reliant.