Recent research by West Monroe Partners found that most hiring and training for technical professionals do not emphasize leadership, and so those employees aren’t seen as leaders by their co-workers. Despite the fact that IT and other departments are collaborating more than ever before, 43 percent of professionals surveyed said they’ve experienced problems with that collaboration, including miscommunication and poor teamwork, and 60 percent said leadership was the weakest soft skill among their technical co-workers.
“Being in IT is more than having technical acumen,” says Kevin Rock, senior director of products and programs at New Horizons Computer Learning Centers. “Leadership and professional development training has been treated by those in the industry as something separate from the technical.” That’s why New Horizons launched a new Center for Leadership and Development last month. The program offers a suite of courses on leadership and professional development, human resource management, business analysis, project management, and IT service management to round out IT leaders’ skills and make them better business partners.
“The transition to becoming a tech leader can be rough,” says Giancarlo Di Vece, president of software development and IT consulting firm Unosquare. “Developers come into the role with only the skills and experience they gained in previous jobs, while still needing to meet all the expectations a leadership position requires.” This is a common problem organizations face when promoting high-potential employees in any department to management positions, but, according to Duke Corporate Education directors Robert Fulmer and Byron Hanson, there are some unique challenges in the tech industry. They recommend creating formal leadership development processes; using data to build support for those processes; cultivating a culture that rewards leadership skills as much as it does technical skills; creating courses “that are smart, specific and fast moving” and that “simulate real-world problems and competition”; and supporting coaching (including peer coaching) and mentoring.
West Monroe Partners researchers recommend that leadership training be continuous and integrated into coaching and performance reviews for all technical employees. Nick Seegmiller, director of software engineering at Vivint Smart Home, recommends starting that coaching and training early so that when a technical manager is needed, one is ready. Toyama says that beginning with assessments will help training managers identify skills gaps and implement a personalized leadership development program for each learner based on those gaps. “You can certainly have quick wins that would be easily implemented in less than a month,” he writes, “but focusing on new behaviors is also necessary to ensure those changes last.”
Research conducted by Training Industry, Inc. and GP Strategies in 2013 identified several best practices for training technical leaders. Many of these best practices are applicable to training leaders in any department – including delivering and reinforcing training with a variety of methods; engaging business leaders, subject matter experts, technical professionals and technical leaders in training development; and ensuring training is relevant and applicable. Notably, the research found some discrepancies between the views of learning leaders and technical leaders, so communication and collaboration is essential to align training to actual learning needs.
“The idea that engineers don’t make great people leaders is a myth,” writes Nathalie Salles, an executive coach, and this myth exists for other technical professionals as well. Fight this myth at your organization by providing leadership training to technical employees. It will not only provide them with what Rock calls “the intangible competencies … that make a leader transformational,” but it will also ensure a strong pipeline of leaders for your IT department – leading to greater integration across the organization and, ultimately, better business performance.