Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Hire the premier technical expert

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The Manager by Design blog advocates for a new field called Management Design. The idea is that the creation of great and effective managers in organizations should not occur by accident, but by design.  Currently, the creation of great managers falls under diverse, mostly organic methods, which create mixed results at best and disasters at worst.  This is the latest of a series that explores the existing designs that create managers in organizations.  Today’s “design” we have now:  Hire the premier technical expert.

Having the opportunity to hire a premier technical expert to improve your organization’s performance is a great idea.  It brings in a fresh perspective, the technical knowledge you need, and perhaps will transition your team from being mediocre to industry-leading.   What could go wrong?  Lots.

When you hire expertise (whether it is in software development, architecture, marketing, finance, design, construction etc.), you want to make sure you maximize the channels for that expertise to be expressed.  Is managing a team or department the best channel for expressing the expertise?  I say no.  Here are some things that can happen when you put the technical expert in the role of managing people:

1) The technical expert is now responsible for duties not related to expressing and implementing technical expertise.

These are managerial duties such as determining and tracking budget, hiring, running team meetings, setting goals, providing performance feedback, managing inter-team and intra-team relationships, and the like.   This takes a lot of time and energy, and provides little left-over time to work on developing and expressing technical knowledge.  If you spend time and money in attracting “top talent”, you want to make sure you maximize the expression of the talent, and not throw other duties at the top talent.  You’ll get less return on investment.

2) The technical expert is great technically, but it is a wild card as to whether the technical expert has managerial skills

By definition, the technical expert has spent her time developing expertise in a field, and not in people-managing.  This increases the likelihood that the newly anointed technical expert/manager is on the lower end of the managerial abilities.  She simply has not put in the hours to learn these skills.  Those hours went into building other expertise. Of course, this technical expert is great at learning things, so there is hope! But now you are in a bind:  Do you have the technical expert spending time learning management skills, or expressing the technical expertise?  Is this what you did the extensive search for?

3) The technical expert may have great managerial skills, but does she really want to manage?

In the case where the technical expert is actually good at managing, this is great!  Here’s the downside:  The technical expert has spent most of her time putting effort into generating expertise in areas other than managing, indicating an interest outside of managing the department or team.  So it doesn’t matter if the expert has the ability, the technical expert has already chosen a path other than managing.  You, the hirer, now have to wrest the technical expert off of this path, and onto a different path.

4) The technical expert will lose the technical expertise edge, devaluing the value of the hire

As soon as the technical expert is managing a team, she is now a part-time technical expert.  Whatever edge that has been built up is now destined to be eroded.  This will cause resentment in the managerial duties, as it “distracts” from the “core” elements of her job.  A true technical expert should be investing in further increasing her knowledge and ability in the field, and managing a team risks throwing out that investment entirely.

5) The technical expert will skew technical expertise as the only criterion of performance

If you hire expertise, you are making a bet that expertise is a key component to success.  When you put the expert in charge of the department, you are stating that you value expertise.  The technical expert may be good at elevating the collective expertise of a group, and this should be a top reason for hiring the expert in the first place.  However, if you put the technical expert in charge of the group, the role of evaluating the talent on the group falls squarely on the expert, and the expert values expertise.  So here’s the problem:

The expert, by definition, is has more expertise than her reports, and the expert will have no other possible evaluation than that the direct reports have less expertise.  A less tactful “manager/expert” will find her reports to be “inferior”, “stupid”, or “not capable”, as her reports do not meet the standard of knowledge set by the manager.  When expertise is the standard of performance (and this is what got the expert to where she is), and the expert is in charge, you have just designed in an entire team of underperformers.  The underperformers will constantly hear that they need to “learn more” to be successful.  And should they do so, and actually become more expert (especially now that the expert is part time as an expert), this makes the direct reports a threat to the manager.  Problems ensue.

6) The technical expert has no help in making decisions

The direct reports’ knowledge do not exceed the manager’s knowledge (either in reality or perception), so their input is automatically inferior. This makes the technical expert alone in evaluating options, getting information, learning the latest trends and technology.  The dynamic will likely shift the technical expert away from managing the team and more toward diving into the details and producing the output.  As an offshoot, the technical expert will complain to her management about the need to hire more expertise and talent.

7) The technical expert will not trust or use the output of the team, creating waste

The technical expert, even with a team, will tend toward trusting only her creations, and even start doing the jobs the team is supposed to do.  This makes the team worthless.  It also makes it pointless for the expert to have a team in the first place, if the manager doesn’t use the output of the team.  It may be less expensive to have the expert just go it alone.

So while it is important to have expertise on the team, it is also important to use it wisely.  Putting the expert in charge isn’t a wise choice unless that expert is willing to:

–no longer be the expert

–fully become an expert in managing

–in trusting other expertise and output

Unfortunately, hiring the expert is a fairly common “management design”.  People become managers and leaders because of their expertise, not their managerial capability, removing them from the tasks that made them successful in the past.

Improved management design will recognize that expertise and the expression of it isn’t necessarily a top-down dynamic, and that management isn’t necessarily a “who’s most expert” proposition.  It’s a “who’s best at managing a team” proposition.  Improved management design will make sure roles are reserved for expressing technical expertise, and are not lazily conflated with managing a team or department.

Do you have stories of a manager or department lead who was put in that position because of their expertise?  What were the results?

Related posts:

The Cost of Low Quality Management

Management Design: The designs we have now – Promote the one who asks for it

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Make the loudest person the manager

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Recruit someone from a successful comparable organization

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: You can manage only if you’re from here

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Promote the top performer

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: You’ve managed a team before? We need you!

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: MBA graduates and Consultants

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


5 Responses to “Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Hire the premier technical expert”
  1. another Walt guy says:

    I have found in my business that the majority of individuals I have worked with who have been promoted to their management position are poor managers. They may have been proficient in their earlier specialized jobs but were inept after being promoted. Their actions and efforts mirrored that of their previous manager who had probably been promoted the same way. It made it very difficult to deal with them and their staff in these situations.

  2. Hi another Walt guy,

    Great comment! It’s amazing how there is relatively little effort put into making sure that once the person is promoted they do their managerial duties. Frequently, they don’t even know what their managerial duties are, and they need to figure it out for themselves. One source of “inspiration” is the previous manager. Not always a good thing, to be sure, since it’s not clear where the previous manager got his or her “inspiration.”


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