AMA: How can Technical People Move into Management?

Nicholas asks:

what do you see as the best way for technical people to move into management roles?

I hope you’ll ask a question, too!

Learn about businessBe the Master definitely touches on this a bit, but my best advice is to find a Master – a mentor, if you will – who’s willing to help you understand business. I’ve had a few, who would literally help me understand the business perspectives I needed to make better business-level decisions. Being independent for a decade+ didn’t hurt, because I was my business.
And you know, maybe that’s a way to think about it. Suppose you want your boss to, I dunno, buy some new administration tool to make your life easier. The answer is “no.” If I’m your boss, that is. That’s because I don’t care about making your life easier. That’s not my job, and it’s not what the business is for. I pay you to perform a service, and I don’t especially mind if you find it difficult. That’s why I pay you. If it was easier, I could probably get someone cheaper to do it, and I would. So if you want that tool, you have to figure out what the business gets from it. And prove it. “Oh, we’ll be faster,” is a poor argument. For one, you probably don’t know how fast or slow you are now, and you probably can’t tell me how much faster you’ll be, and I have to buy the damn thing first to see if you’re right. Plus, if you’re faster, what would you be doing with all that free time? Spending more hours on Facebook at work?
It’s this kind of thing that runs through businesspeople’s minds all the time. What frustrates a lot of businesspeople is how non–businesspeople (“employees,” if you want a shorter word, although that’s not always accurate as plenty of “managers” are also non-businesspeople) focus on themselves with little regard for why the business exists in the first place. I really do get into that a lot in Be the Master, for what it’s worth.
So: if I had to make a checklist for you, it’d look like this:

  • Learn to be a better communicator. People who communicate well get things done.
  • Learn to be an advocate for the business. Understand the business’ motivations and perspectives, and be a person who looks out for the business.
  • Learn to be an advocate for people. This isn’t a contradiction with the previous bullet, because all businesses strike a balancing point between their team and their owners. Learn to help find that balance. Sometimes, it means neither side is delighted with the outcome, but so long as it’s acceptable for everyone, you’re hitting it right.

Ultimately, be a person that the company owners would trust to help run the show. That doesn’t mean just putting your foot on every employee’s neck to wring the most from them; that’s not a healthy business model and if I were a company owner, I wouldn’t want that done.
Ask to take on some managerial responsibilities. This means you will have to volunteer, and you will not be paid extra. This is how you prove yourself; I’m not going to promote you – a task which is hard to back out of if you can’t do the job – until I’ve seen that you can do the job. If you’re thinking, “yea, but I’m not going to just volunteer to do more work for no pay,” then you’re not management material. Sorry.
Know that a manager’s job is to clear the way for their team. To take the blame, when they’re not the ones to blame. Nobody yells at my team but me; if we did something wrong, it’s my fault, and I’ll deal with whatever else within my team. I position my team to succeed, and to help rive the company’s mission forward. I understand my place in the scheme of things: I’ll advise my bosses about what I think is the best path, but I know that I don’t always have all the details. Having advised them, I’ll then proceed to march in whatever direction they ask me to. I don’t argue about it, I don’t sabotage the plan because I disagree with it.
A bit of that is my military upbringing. An anecdote that comes to mind is back in the 1990s when “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was going around. A local news channel interviewed a Naval Commander in the base near where I lived. At the time, the big argument about gays in the military was that it would corrupt unit morale, create personnel problems, and so on. Age-old argument that’s been used against minorities, racially integrated units, transgendered personnel, you name it. Anyway, this guy says, “I don’t think gays should be allowed in the military. That’s my opinion, and I’ve advised as much. But if my superior officers order me to make it happen, I can assure you there will not be a problem in my command.” That’s the attitude I think more people should have in business. This is what I think, but once you tell me what the mission is, I will execute that mission. I will find a way to make it happen, and I will not complain about it. I will not put obstacles in the way. The mission will occur, because that is my job as a manager. I think more people need to think that way, and I think it’s a key mindset to moving into management.
Hope that helps!

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