Our Leaders are Failing

Welcome to the world of IT, a world in which we have significant problems with our leadership. This is by no means a problem at all companies, but it is a fairly wide-reaching problem within the industry. The worst bit about this problem is that it is extremely simple to avoid.

So, what is the problem? It’s simply that we tend to promote people into leadership roles for the wrong reasons.

I’ve worked at a number of companies that assess staff purely on their technical capabilities, if someone is achieving their technical goals they get promoted. This works well when people are individual contributors, but once they move toward a leadership role (either technical or people leadership) there are other skills that need to take precedence. Additional to this, many companies don’t offer any form of leadership training, so technical staff who are promoted into a leadership role have no way to gain the new skills they need.

I’ve also worked at companies that assess leadership capabilities prior to promoting to a leadership role and who offer training and support for their leaders. These companies seem (in my opinion at least) to have a much better company culture, are more supportive of their individual contributors and have leaders that can see the value they provide.

If technical ability if the only assessment undertaken before promoting to leadership roles negative impacts can occur for both the company and for the individual being promoted.

Promotion to Technical Leadership Based on Technical Capability Alone

When someone is promoted in to a technical leadership role they will often feel the need to increase their output. This is in part because it is what has happened with every previous promotion they’ve experienced, but also because many companies don’t highlight the increased value that can occur when a technical leader shares their knowledge and wisdom through coaching and mentoring. As the new technical leader pushes themselves to deliver more they may feel that they are unable to create the value they are paid for. By focussing on their individual output they lose the opportunity to educate developers with less experience and, therefore, the company doesn’t get the benefit of upskilling their entire development team.

Promotion to People Leadership Based on Technical Capability

Companies that promote individuals in to people leadership roles due to their technical capability will often find their newly promoted staff member will not have the skills required to lead a team. Rather than looking to support the team and allow the team to deliver value, the new leader will still try to deliver technical outputs and will only serve the team as a secondary consideration.

I’ve heard the phrase “promoted to their appropriate level of mismanagement” used before. To me this is often a symptom of this style of promotion. Some people have some natural management ability, and they will be promoted as they are able to perform their current role well, but eventually their natural abilities will run out and they will under-perform in a management role. When this happens they will stop getting promotions and will stagnate in the role they have.

Promoting for the Right Reasons

Before promoting someone in to a leadership role an assessment should be undertaken to see how they are performing as a leader within their current role. As a manager or leader can have a significant cultural impact it is important to ensure they display the company values in all that they do; it’s important to see that the team they are in views them as a leader and gives weight to what they say; it is important to assess their coaching and mentoring abilities as well as their business acumen. When an individual is able to demonstrate all of these at the appropriate level, only then should promotion be considered.

Preparing for Promotion

It’s highly unlikely that someone will meet all of the requirements for promotion without some help and guidance. This is where the current leadership team has a role to play. Preparing someone for a promotion to leadership will require coaching and mentoring by existing leaders, it may require external training and education. It will definitely require a significant amount of on-going support for the person seeking the promotion.

It doesn’t matter if the individual in question is seeking a promotion to a technical leadership role or a people leadership role, they will require skills in coaching and mentoring; they’ll also need an uplift in their understanding of the business and associate decision making processes. It’s likely that the potential leader will need to develop presentation skills to help distribute information to the team.

For people leadership it’s likely that education will be needed in some of the company’s systems (leave approval, performance management, assessing team health etc). It’s also important to know that the individual’s leadership style matches the company’s structure and ways of working; if they’re a servant leader and then organisation is very top-down then chances are they won’t be a good leader within your organisation.

Post Promotion

So now someone’s been promoted into their first leadership role, what needs to happen?

The times I’ve found hardest in my leadership journey is when I’m not getting regular feedback, or I’m just left to sort things out myself. There’s something in my mind that it telling me I’m expected to work though any challenges and use my existing networks for help and assistance, something is telling me if I ask for help it might be viewed as a negative. Now I know this isn’t the case in most organisations, but it’s hard to overcome our irrational fears. To counter this I’ve always appreciated it when the leaders within the company have been proactive about assessing my performance and offering help and guidance. The one-on-ones that I had every week as an individual contributor are now more important as it gives me a chance to ask questions about the new expectations.

I always appreciate it when those above me in the company actively work to assess my skills and weaknesses. By doing this they can identify my blind-spots and make me aware of them; they may even be able to help me find training to help me overcome my weaknesses.

How did the Industry get in this State

Having worked in the Internet industry for over 25 years I feel I’m fairly well qualified to have an opinion on how we got in to this mess.

For a number of years there was only a single path of promotion for developers. We would start as a junior and move through the ranks to become a senior, a journey that may only take 5 years. The next step after senior was to become a team lead; this is where the problems started. As a senior if my only option to a promotion and associated pay-rise was to lead a team I would take it. I know a number of developers who never had a desire to put down the tools, but to get a promotion they had to.

The Way Forward

Recently this situation has started to change for the better. Many companies are promoting an Engineering Growth Framework that allows for development down a technical leadership path, or a people leadership path; some also have the option of a systems design or architecture path. This means that developers can make a choice between putting down the tools or continuing as a technical expert. I think this concept still needs some additional work as many companies still have a significant technical requirement for the people leadership path; I also think that some companies leave the choice between the two paths too late.

When onboarding new developers it’s becoming more common to have an internship style process to help them get up to speed and start delivering value; perhaps we need something similar for leaders where a mid of senior developer can choose to head in a people leadership direction and get appropriate help and assistance to become a good leader. Perhaps we need more accessible leadership training, courses and workshops that can be afforded by an individual.

The one thing I am completely sure of is that as an industry we need to better train and coach our leaders to allow them to enable others to be the best they can be.

This article was originally published on Alphageek, my personal blog, as Our Leaders are Failing.

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Michael Lambert

Michael Lambert

Human-centric SaaS Professional | People Leadership & Mentoring | Technical, Product & Delivery Management