Transitioning From IT Professional to IT Manager

March 8, 2017

A move into management can lead to greater levels of future responsibility and contribution, but this transition is challenging. These tips can help IT pros.

The promotion from being an individual contributor to becoming a manager can be one of most promising in any IT professional’s career. A move into the management ranks can lead to even greater levels of future responsibility and contribution.

Few may realize, however, that this transition is very challenging. In fact, as many as 60 percent of first-time managers struggle or fail in these new roles. Below are tips to help first-time managers prepare for, and be successful in, a new management position.

Take charge of your own learning and development.

One of the major reasons that many first-time managers stumble through this transition is that organizations tend to do very little to formally prepare professionals for these roles. This is especially the case with technical organizations, which tend to prioritize technical training and overlook the importance of investing in the development of management skills. But to succeed at managing, IT professionals need to become skilled in the social and emotional sides of work—areas where technical education usually falls short.

To take charge of your own learning and development, you can start by addressing some fundamental questions, such as:

  • What do I want to contribute in my professional career, and why?
  • What are my distinctive strengths and core values?
  • How do I relate to others who depend on me?
  • In what kinds of work environments do I thrive?

Answers to questions like these can open up a robust and personalized learning agenda for becoming a manager. They can also help you make important choices about the kinds of roles and environments that bring out the best in you.

Learn from your past, but don’t be trapped by it.

High-performing IT professionals are often promoted into management because of their technical achievements. This can serve an important purpose because having strong technical skills can grant much needed credibility that a first-time IT manager will need. But past achievements can also lead to a common problem among new managers. Here’s how.

If in the past a newly promoted manager had been consistently rewarded for solo achievements, that individual may have a hard time trusting others to deliver the same quality of work that he or she produced alone. As star solo performer, the worker has essentially learned, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

This mindset often leads to the kinds of micromanaging we often see among inexperienced managers. The consequences are often negative for everyone: higher levels of stress, mistrust, underperformance, and people either quitting or actively looking for another job.

Managing involves achieving collective results rather individual ones. To succeed, newly promoted managers often need to adopt a whole new mindset toward working and performing.

So the message here is clear: Learn from your past individual successes, but don’t be trapped by them. As you assume responsibility for others, shift your mindset more toward developing, empowering and energizing other workers—not controlling them. 

Learn what it takes to be a great manager and leader in your specific area.

The information explosion in recent years is driving radical changes in many organizations. And with these changes, we are seeing many new types of management and leadership emerging. Some companies are moving away from bureaucratic, rigid forms of management toward approaches that enable greater autonomy and agility among professionals.

I’ve spoken with many engineering and high-technology leaders today who want to encourage their non-managerial employees to exercise leadership in their roles.

This raises a key point: While the terms “management” and “leadership” are often used interchangeably, they differ in complementary and important ways. Management, for example, serves the important function of providing stability and predictability.  Leadership, on the other hand, helps organizations cope with change and uncertainty. 

Being Effective at Both Management and Leadership

How can you as an IT professional evolve to become an effective manager and leader? First, you must learn what it takes to be effective at both. For example, if your IT projects need to be consistently “on budget, on time, and as specified”, then you need to learn the management skills that are needed to effectively deliver these types of outcomes.

If your group is experiencing uncertainty and change in its future, then you will need to identify the kinds of leadership skills that are needed to create new visions for your group’s future—and to build support among key stakeholders for these new visions. Every role in an organization will have unique demands in management and leadership, and the key is to identify these skills, which may or may not exist among the current ranks of management.

Building competency as a manager and leader is something that almost anyone can do. It’s one of the reasons that we are starting to see more colleges and engineering schools offer leadership education for technical and engineering professionals.

If you have the will and the expertise to become a manager, step up and prepare your own learning journey. The future of your company—and your own career—may rely on your leadership.

David Niño, Ph.D., co-director of the Engineering Leadership for Emerging Leadership course, is a senior lecturer in the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he heads leadership education for graduate students across the Institute.