Training Technical Communicators for Management
by Jessica Erber-Stark
Unfortunately, many technical writers who move up into management have had little to no management training, yet they’re expected to be successful quickly. This article looks at how managers can best identify management candidates and invest the time and effort to train them for success.
When you think of the best manager you have ever worked for, you probably remember his/her ability to motivate you and your colleagues, his/her professional but personable demeanor, and the way his/her organizational skills matched the right person with the right responsibilities. In your management role, you strive to do all these things. However, to make the greatest impact, you must not only excel as a manager yourself, but also help the next generation of leaders develop their managerial skills.
To accomplish these goals, one of your top competencies is the ability to communicate extremely well. In this regard, your people most likely already have a head start over management candidates from other disciplines. Furthermore, technical communicators are accustomed to working with diverse groups and negotiating to reach objectives to satisfy multiple stakeholders. Yet, we cannot assume that any technical communicator will adjust easily to a management role. Even the most capable candidates require a significant amount of preparation. It may not be an easy process for you or for the candidate, but there are numerous benefits resulting from good management training. For example:
- Providing solid management training will enhance your staff’s motivation by demonstrating that career opportunities exist within the organization.
- Investing in training before candidates become managers is the best way to ensure successful managers. Training is a much safer environment in which to make mistakes without causing serious harm to the business or to the candidate’s career.
- Creating a pipeline for new managers allows existing managers to pursue advancement opportunities without sacrificing the health of the organization.
The first step in training new managers is to select your management candidates. Depending on the size of your organization, the number of candidates you choose and the frequency with which you select them will vary. It makes sense to consider more management candidates than you will probably need, as some candidates may end up choosing other career paths. Also, as candidates go through management training, you may realize that some of them are not management material after all. And although not all candidates will become managers, the training can still benefit everyone – including the company.
You probably already know what to look for in potential management candidates. Ideally, several employees in your organization would have the perfect mix of technical, political, and strategic skills that would make them obvious choices for the proverbial corner office. However, in most cases, individuals have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others.
In her article, Personalize Your Management Development, from the Harvard Business Review, Organizational Development Specialist Natalie Shope Griffin (see References below) describes four common types of management candidates:
- Reluctant leaders possess the necessary skills to succeed in management, but lack the self-assurance to move into a management role. Training for these candidates should involve a heavy dose of confidence building and mentorship.
- Arrogant leaders are also insecure, but choose to mask that weakness by behaving brashly. Although they possess talent in other areas, these people lack the humility necessary to effectively lead others. Shope Griffin recommends a harsh reality check for these individuals to force them to honestly face their shortcomings and deal with them in productive ways.
- Unknown leaders are often introverted and uncomfortable with networking, which they see as artificial. They have leadership skills, which remain unseen by all but the unknown leader’s closest associates. If you are managing an unknown leader, you can help by putting these capable people in positions where exposure will come naturally with the job responsibilities. Training for unknown leaders should include coaching on how to develop meaningful networks.
- Workaholics are commonly promoted into management because work is their top priority. Yet, this is not a formula for management success. The typical workaholic does not fully trust colleagues and subordinates, and hence cannot inspire others to the same level of dedication that the workaholic demands of him/her self. Training for workaholics should focus on developing more reasonable performance expectations, as well as healthful approaches to life and work.
Because many companies approach management training from a “one size fits all” perspective, many candidates struggle unnecessarily once they obtain their first management appointment. This is counter-productive for the managers, for the people they manage, and for the organization as a whole.
On-The-Job Management Training
Many new managers have a difficult time making the transition from individual contributor to manager. They have been successful at applying their technical skills to deliver on their own commitments, but may not be as adept at leading others to do the same. On-the-job training should involve measures to fill this skill gap.
One way to develop leadership skills is to place the candidate in incrementally more challenging team- leadership roles. In these positions, the candidate will not have all management responsibilities, but will be accountable for ensuring that a group of people fulfills business objectives. The candidate will gain experience with a variety of duties such as:
- Motivating teams
- Measuring performance
- Delegating responsibility
The candidate will also make mistakes, which you should view as a positive occurrence that gives him/her an opportunity to learn. Throughout this educational process, the candidates will look to upper management for guidance and support in their new leadership roles.
Team leadership is a particularly effective preparatory experience for some of the candidate types previously mentioned. For example:
- For reluctant leaders, success in these roles can build their confidence and prepare them for bigger assignments. They will, however, require encouragement along the way.
- For unknown leaders, the increased scope of their responsibility can naturally lead to a wider network without it seeming contrived.
Because both of these types already possess most of the desired leadership characteristics, there is little potential risk and great potential reward for moving them into team leadership roles.
The path may be a bit rockier for arrogant leaders. Team leadership may force them to choose between a combative attitude and project failure, or a more humble approach and subsequent success. This can be a tough proposition. There is a high likelihood that the arrogant leader will blame problems on other team members, thereby eroding the morale of other employees. As an involved manager, you must be present to steer the arrogant leader toward more honest and mature behavior. Given this opportunity, Shope Griffin maintains that many arrogant individuals will reform and become effective leaders.
Workaholics may also have difficulties in team-leadership roles, because they tend to resist delegating responsibility to team members and ultimately take on more work themselves. The project will likely get done, but other team members may end up frustrated, and your workaholic will be that much closer to exhaustion. You may need to force your workaholic to delegate. This might seem like a lot of legwork on your part, but keep in mind that your ultimate long-term goal is to develop both your management candidate and your organization.
Management Training Programs
In the worst cases, typical management training programs include multiple days of boring lectures and a thick instructional manual. Although we all know the value of a good manual, sometimes that just isn’t enough. To meet the needs of management candidates, training programs must be extensive in scope and duration. They must also be flexible to account for individual personalities.
Each year at several locations, IBM conducts a key management training program called the Management Perspectives Seminar (MPS). MPS Candidates are selected from all disciplines within the business. This not only includes technical communications, but also programming, engineering, finance, and so on. This mix lends itself to many viewpoints and networking opportunities between the various types of management candidates.
While MPS allows employees to explore management before making a permanent obligation to becoming a manager, the program still requires a significant time commitment. MPS groups meet weekly for two hours over a period of several months. During that time, they cover a wide range of managerial responsibilities, including:
- Conducting reviews
- Recruiting & interviewing
- Administering salary plans
- Understanding the complexities of managing a large organization
MPS also focuses on leadership topics that candidates would not necessarily be exposed to in their technical roles, including:
- Managing for diversity
- Ensuring work/life balance on the team
- Helping people deal with change
- Mentoring subordinates
Of course, every manager has some spectacularly unpleasant days. MPS covers these situations through various role-playing activities. In these exercises, management candidates act out scenarios as if they were managers facing real-life situations. Usually, the scenarios involve very bad circumstances, such as:
- Employees stealing company laptops and “generously” donating them to charity
- Employees distributing inappropriate literature in the break room
- Employees failing to report to work for several consecutive days
Role playing exposes all types of management candidates to potentially problematic personnel situations, and allows them to work through it in their own way, with feedback from peers and facilitators.
A team of managers facilitate the MPS program. This works well for several reasons:
- First, it ensures that the coaching given to the candidates is grounded in reality. Instead of the idealized HR version, candidates get day-to-day practical advice.
- Secondly, the MPS facilitators represent a range of backgrounds. They come from many areas of the company and have different experiences from which to draw. Some are very seasoned managers, while others are new to management.
- Finally, MPS is an opportunity upon which to form beneficial relationships that can last well into candidates’ transition into management. This ensures that as candidates take the challenge to step out of their technical duties and into managerial roles, they have trusted resources to draw upon.
Other Sources of Training
Every company, regardless of industry or size, needs good management. To that end, there is no shortage of training opportunities available:
- Certification programs: Many companies offer ongoing certification programs in management. In some companies, completion of this certification is a prerequisite for obtaining a management position.
- Management associations and consulting firms: There are several well-known associations and consulting firms that provide management training. They are easy to find using your favorite search engine.
- Colleges and universities: Many universities offer degrees in Business Administration. If you are looking for a shorter-term educational experience, you might consider taking only one course in a managerial discipline, or look for a program tailored to professionals. The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, for example, offers a “Mini MBA” that exposes students to several areas of the full MBA program in one semester.
Shope Griffin, N. (2003). Personalize your management development. [Electronic version]. Harvard Business Review, 81(3), 113-119. Retrieved December 20, 2006, from Business Source Premier database.
About the Author
Jessica Erber-Stark is a technical writer and documentation team leader at IBM in Rochester, MN. She holds a BS in Technical Communication from Michigan Tech University and will complete her MBA from the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas this Spring. When not working or attending class, Jessica enjoys outdoor sports and spending time with her husband and their two shelter-rescue dogs.