At a glance
“Every move after that – even from general manager to CEO – is not as hard as moving out of that individual contributor role into your first-level people leadership role,” Marshall says.
That shift requires the acquisition of a new skill set. Technical and managerial skill sets cover different territories, she adds.
“Technical skills are all about the task or the project – forensic accounting, for example – while management skills are all about the people and the relationships.”
These different skill sets are commonly referred to as “hard skills” and “soft skills” – misnomers, says Michelle Gibbings, workplace expert and author.
“Behavioural and leadership skills can be far harder to master than the technical skills,” Gibbings says.
The new age of the middle manager
Skills for management
Marshall advises anyone interested in moving into management to work on their coaching skills by “being present with your people, really listening to them and asking questions to help them work through their own problems, rather than you solving them”.
Other critical skills include giving feedback, time management, prioritisation and delegation.
“The area where I have seen new managers going wrong is lack of ability to delegate,” says Marshall. “They think, ‘I am the leader – I need to do everything’, and they get overwhelmed.”
Marshall says that a technical expert-turnedmanager can find it hard to switch mindset from “me” to “we” where the main focus is the team, not the technical work.
This is the difference between completing a task yourself because you believe you are the only one who can do it and supporting your team to deliver the required outcome.
Technical skills can become a trap, says Marshall. “If you think you know best, you become the one always answering the questions.”
While it is essential to stay across what is happening in the industry, a new leader must broaden their scope. “You do not need to know all the nuts and bolts anymore because you have people in your team who can do that.”
This is where delegation comes in. “The question I often give people to put in their back pocket is: ‘Who else can do this technical work?’,” says Marshall.
“If the answer is ‘no one’, take it as a red flag – and an opportunity to upskill your team.
“The new managers who develop their team are the ones that get promoted and do well,” says Marshall. “If you take everything on yourself, you are just going to get burned out.”
Why your transferrable skills are in demand
How to upskill
Marshall says she often encounters workplaces where technical experts have been promoted into management roles without adequate training. “I see this happening so often,” she says. “It is misery for the person, the team and the organisation. It is the classic lose–lose.”
Developing self-awareness is the first port of call for anyone keen to make the leap from a technical position to a leadership role.
“The best leaders are self-aware leaders,” says Marshall.
Gibbings agrees. “You really need to understand how you show up, how people see you, how you interact with people,” she says.
Gibbings recommends leaders ask themselves, “What is the impact I am having on other people? Is it productive? Is it healthy? Am I helping my team to develop and grow?” Gibbings says.
Marshall recommends finding a mentor who has made the same transition from technical whiz to manager. Identify how they made the shift and recruit them to your “metaphorical team” for support.
Finally, she suggests a proactive approach to learning – reading leadership books, watching videos and choosing a role model, “someone who you see as a very inspiring leader – they seem to have their team on board, they communicate well, they are delivering high performance”, says Marshall. Analyse what makes them so successful.
How can employers upskill their managers?
Advice for organisations
Good management starts with recruitment, says Marshall.
“The number one thing organisations should be doing is selecting the person who will make the best leader. That means not necessarily selecting the best technical expert.”
Gibbings argues that organisations should offer alternative pathways to promotion for people who are technical experts but are not interested in pursuing leadership roles.
“If you do not want to lead people, it is important to find something else where your talents will shine, because to be a good leader, you have to be genuinely interested in developing the people around you,” she says.