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From Manager to Leader: Leadership Coaching for STEM Managers

An ongoing concurrent study interviewed twenty-three senior leaders from across the STEM sectors to identify the development needs of managers making the transition to leadership roles. The study identified both individual needs and the organisational factors that mediate how hard or easy it is for this cohort to access development. A summary of the findings is presented here.

Individual Capability Needs

Special Idea: Often engaged for their ability as individual contributors and valued for their specialist skill, they can come later to leadership and are sometimes promoted into leadership roles based on their technical talent more than their leadership skills, though this is not always the case. Developing their leadership is crucial for creating opportunities for others and building a pipeline of technical talent. It is a challenging career point as some do not want to take on leadership roles and may enter it for the purposes of advancement unprepared for the demands of such roles. Twelve (12) development needs were identified by the reference group. The top five (5) factors are:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Commercial Acumen
  • Difficult conversations
  • Communication
  • Letting go
  • Self-Awareness. Developing self-awareness was identified as a foundation for leadership. Understanding strengths and development gaps, responses to people and situations and using this insight to adjust their own behaviour. Some have ‘imposter syndrome’.
  • Communication. Translating tech or professional language and curating ideas in plain language for peers and senior executives. Developing presence/gravitas and influence. Being able to scale content to the situation and audience i.e., Media brief, vs Thought leadership, vs. Executive business case.
  • Commercial acumen. Understanding commercial and competitive issues including the ability to see their technical work in the context of its value to the strategy and business plan. This includes the cycles of budget approval and audit, customers and stakeholders and seeing results and opportunities in business terms. Understanding business metrics (NPV, EBITDA, TCE, NVAB) Managing the Time-Cost-Quality triangle and talking in money words. Developing breadth and depth of business knowledge outside a speciality.
  • Letting go. Technical managers are naturally most comfortable with things they can control and solutionaise. Doing what they love is an obstacle to taking on a leadership role. They have typically been successful through accuracy and detail. It follows that transitioning from technical fields and trading the objectivity of technical solutions for the sometimes ambiguous issues of managing stakeholder relationships and engagement is a challenge. Letting go of the search for scientific certainty, in favour of achieving timely results can be difficult. There can be a fear of being wrong. There is mana in being a specialist.
  • Managing difficult conversations. Addressing and managing conflict, giving and receiving feedback. Managing difficult conversations on high and low performance, culture and ethics 2 and holding others accountable. Orientation of new talent and managing unexpected talent departures.
  • Vulnerability. Exercising vulnerability and authenticity, tolerating risk of failure, and breaking through ‘imposter syndrome.’
  • Delegating. Delegating and managing the risk that something will not be done as well or as quickly as if they did it themselves for the sake of others learning and keeping their own focus up and out.
  • Emotional intelligence. Demonstrating empathy, listening, and sensing. ‘Reading the room’ and using this to adjust approach. Accepting compromise. Developing confidence in dealing with mental health and engagement issues in the team.
  • Resilience. Maintaining emotional energy and control when under pressure. Rebounding from setbacks. Maintaining healthy life balance choices.
  • Leading Change. Constructively challenging the status quo, talking too much about the future, navigating, and leading sustainable change. Working through obstacles, accepting ambiguity and risk
  • Talent management. Making quality merit-based decisions around sourcing, hiring, creating talent pools and developing capability. Paying forward what has proven valuable in their own development.
  • Collaborating. Adult learning is a profoundly social process, but peer relationships can be challenging and sometime competitive. Learning to navigate competition for resources, investment and access to talent. Sharing knowledge and information with a collaborative mindset.
  • Organisational Factors Moderating Coaching Needs.

    Special idea: For professionals and specialists taking on leadership roles, their organisation plays a role in determining how hard or easy it is to develop their leadership potential. Eight (8) factors supporting development were identified by the reference group. The top five (5) factors are:

    • Value Perception
    • Pathways
    • Safe to Learn
    • Networks
    • Access to Development
  • Value Perception. Perception that leadership is intangible, hard to codify and less important than technical capability. Conversely, the degree to which technical roles are discussed in the contexts of broader value creation can be variable.
  • Networks. Ability to access professional networks, role models and communities of practice.
  • Pathways. Technical career ceilings and clarity of pathways to leadership success. How well the internal appointment process places emphasise on leadership capability. Junior professional-technical talents need effective leaders and role models to grow organisational and sector capability
  • Access to development. The priority and resources allocated to leadership development can be variable and hard to find.
  • Safe to learn. Organisational cultures vary on how safe it is to learn from failure or be vulnerable.
  • Feedback. Authentic feedback can decline with seniority.
  • Opportunity. Clarity of scope and accountability mechanisms can dilute or reduce opportunities for leadership development. There can be variance in the quality and level of delegation for decision-making.
  • Design. Managing remote teams, project or matrix structures can dislocate managers from their teams and reduce opportunity for developing leadership skills. Regulatory requirements, complexity, governance procedures and reporting mechanisms can impact on the transition from specialist to leader.
  • Summary

    Resourcing leadership development is determined by executive leaders, mediated by the organisation’s development values, organisational maturity, culture, and investment decisions. While many of the individual needs identified here are shared by managers of all backgrounds, managers from professional backgrounds typically advance to mid-career on their specialist skills, ownership of the business or their record of revenue generation. The transition from specialist competence to leading others can surface a skill gap or challenge at mid to late career, at a point where managing talent and teams can be either a success multiplier or a brake on progress. The framework of this transition can be described below by this pathway of transition.

    The path to becoming a professional leader

    • Early career

      Professional or technical expertise is the predominant source of success, aided by self-leadership and peer influence.

    • Mid-career

      Professional or technical expertise is balanced with project management, technical direction, engaging peers, leading small teams, deconflicting resource issues and sharing personal expertise for influencing change and/or investment

    • Late career

      Professional expertise needs to be maintained enough to ‘stay in the conversation’ and be able to mentor and rescue projects at risk but letting go as core activity shifts to setting direction, managing capability, fiscal responsibility, controlling resources, influencing investment, and managing stakeholders.

    The study found that developing the capability of technical managers to deliver results and lead with confidence and authenticity, centres on them developing their self-awareness, communication, commercial acumen, and making the transition from holding a purely technical focus to leading people, change and a results orientation. Action learning is the most effective Zone of Transition Professional -Technical Capability Leadership - Management Capability 4 pathway to achieve these results because it works within the manager’s context on organisational challenges or opportunities.

    Actions in the form of projects and tasks that expose managers to broader business objectives are valuable. Sharing their knowledge in an article or conference paper can focus their expertise and enhance their communication skills. Self-paced learning through podcasts and e-learning can expand their mindset. Actively seeking the gift of feedback is always helpful. Actions like mentoring (collaborating with an expert) and Coaching (empowering themselves, new perspectives, confidence and clarity) can complement action learning and build self-awareness, engagement, collaboration, and influence. By investing in examining and assessing their work with the help of a coach, leaders can find better balance and shift the perspective on their priorities. Time management, delegation, becoming more planful, all contribute to better performance, retention, and increased commitment to their work. Coaching can put the status quo in a place where it does not block the manager’s view of what is possible and help to prevent their genius getting in the way of their effectiveness.

    Crispin Garden-Webster

    Crispin enables clients to become confident impactful leaders. He has been engaged and trusted as a coach for senior managers and executives in Energy, Finance & Banking, Health, and Regulatory environments. He has worked across diverse sectors including Defence, Telecomms, Science, Maritime, Aviation, Energy, Utilities, Supply chain, Finance & Banking, International Development and Health. His international career spans work in Germany, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Sultanate of Oman.

    Crispin brings deep human capital capability and maturity developed over 35 years of management and consulting experience. He has cultural literacy gathered through international engagement in the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific. He has whakapapa to Ngāi Tahu. He has well developed relationship management and influencing skills with engagement at Executive and Board level in both private and public sector environments. He has demonstrated an ability to sustain trust in sensitive environments.

    Crispin has specific experience in the ICT, Finance and Energy Sector collaborating with senior managers on making the transition from functional management to leadership. He is a graduate of Massey University. He is a Registered Organisational Psychologist, a Fellow of the New Zealand Psychological Society, and a Distinguished Fellow of the HR Institute of New Zealand. He is an affiliate member of Engineering New Zealand and works within the professional codes of ethics of the New Zealand Psychological Society (NZPsS) and International Coaching Federation (ICF)