Growing a new crop of IT managers

Good IT managers are surprisingly hard to find and organisations need a focused approach that identifies talent and gives them the room to flourish.

Where will your next generation of IT managers come from?  For most senior IT leaders, the answer is that they will hire them. They plan to dip into that deep pool of talent in the outside world to reel in just the right sort of people to drive their organisations into the future.

Given all the concerns about shrinking IT departments and the outsourcing of IT jobs, there should be enough experienced managers to go around, right? Well, perhaps, but perhaps not. The baby boom generation of managers is rapidly approaching retirement age. And they are probably looking forward to it, given the storm clouds on the horizon for IT.

Not that we should look upon managers as a commodity. But as with grain, if everyone's buying and no one is growing, acquisition may not be as easy as some expect. It always seems to come back to that supply-and-demand curve from microeconomics class. So perhaps a little growing may be a good way to ensure a stable future for your organisation.

Here are a few ideas for initiating a focused approach to growing new managers:

Identify your pool of high-potential candidates. Inquire among your project managers, directors, users and others about who on the staff has management potential. Keep this informal and quiet.

Offer opportunities to explore the management role. Make a conscious effort to find small ways for the likely candidates to experiment with managerial roles. Give them a chance to interact with customers directly. Have one person take the lead on a three-person task. Ask one of them to suggest a new process for something. This gives them a chance to learn and you an opportunity to observe. Don't make these things big public events, just small parts of the job. By the time a new manager is appointed, he should have had the chance to dabble in many areas of the job.

Don't expect 100 per cent conversion. Not everyone you identify will turn out to have real ability, and some of those with ability may lack desire. Not everyone wants to be a manager, and you have to respect that.

Make sure that there's a viable rollback option. Too many times, I've seen star performers leave companies because they tried out management and learned that they hated it. Once branded with the manager moniker, they felt trapped by their "success," wishing to return to a technical role but fearful of losing status. For them, the only way out was to leave the company, taking with them all their valuable experience and expertise. You've got to devise an approach that allows people to return to technical roles without fear of public humiliation.

Recognise stages in the transformation. Growing managers are just that: growing. The process of becoming is slow and arduous, requiring time and nurturing. You can monitor your proteges' progress through a series of typical stages as they become true managers. (Of course, some get stuck along the way and stop progressing.) Roughly, these are the stages:

Managing tasks:  New managers are typically focused on the things they need their staffs to get done. They concentrate primarily on the activities and products to the exclusion of all else.

Managing relationships: After a while, managers begin to recognize that their roles extend beyond things, and they begin to manage relationships, mostly with external people. They realise their own and their group's interdependence and begin to manage it actively.

Managing people who do tasks:  Eventually, new managers begin to loosen their grips on tasks and begin to focus on managing the people who do the tasks, recognizing their own dependence on their staff and developing trust in their abilities and judgment.

Managing people who accomplish goals: Finally, managers step even farther away from the details of the work and focus on setting direction, context and goals, allowing their people to turn those priorities into reality.

Developing new managers should be considered an important part of every IT leader's role. A modest investment of time and money in future managers can result in the best return on investment you'll find in your entire budget. 

Paul Glen is the CEO of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to unlocking the value of technical people. You can contact him at


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