California Bar Journal
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Turning technicians into managers
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Dana ShultzBill was director of information systems for a mid-size firm in San Francisco. Though he was a technical wizard, Bill had trouble communicating effectively with the firm's administrator and lawyers.

Over time, the situation deteriorated. Suspicion and mistrust grew. Eventually, Bill was fired because key personnel felt they could not work with him.

Kay was network manager for a mid-size firm in Los Angeles. While she took good care of the firm's computer network, the administrator and the management committee were concerned that Kay was not exhibiting the leadership skills they wanted.

Fortunately, Kay was able to turn the situation around. With guidance, she came to understand the firm's business objectives and use them to plan her own activities. Kay ultimately became a valued member of the firm's senior staff.

Coaching helps

Why did these two situations have such varied outcomes? Why did Bill fail, yet Kay succeeded? The difference was coaching.

Given the strategic importance of computer technology, grooming technical managers currently is one of business's greatest challenges. Unfortunately, most technicians who rise to management lack the skills and insights required to manage effectively.

While technicians are not an alien species, many certainly seem to be a different breed. They say and do things that puzzle the people around them. Their values and priorities often are at odds with the firm's strategic objectives.

For many years, senior corporate executives with performance problems have used the services of coaches to help get their careers back on track. Now similar services are available to technical managers.

How it works

Meeting separately with senior management and the technical manager, the coach analyzes the sources of the problem. Are senior management's desires realistic and explained properly? Is the technical manager performing or communicating poorly?

Based on that analysis, the parties agree on objectives they want the manager to achieve. Then the formal coaching begins. While every coach has his or her own style, the following is a typical approach.

Every week, the coach and the manager get together - in person or by telephone - for between 30 and 45 minutes. During these sessions, the coach gains a detailed understanding of the manager's strengths and weaknesses in such areas as setting goals, communicating with superiors and managing staff.

There are many ways the coach can help the manager address the weaknesses. These include, for example, providing direction and advice on how to accomplish specific tasks, recommending skill-improvement classes and helping the manager to better understand his or her role in the firm.

To make the coaching relationship as comfortable as possible, everything the manager tells the coach is maintained in confidence. From time to time, the coach and senior management discuss whether and to what extent the manager's performance is improving.

Coaching sessions typically go on for at least three months. Depending on results achieved and improvements desired, coaching may continue for much longer.

No guarantee

While coaching is valuable, there is no guarantee that it will be effective. Most importantly, the technical manager must be committed to improving his or her performance. The benefits of coaching cannot be forced on an unwilling participant.

But if the firm and the manager are ready to devote the necessary time, energy and resources, it is highly likely that the manager soon will be making a greater contribution to firm operations and profitability.

Dana Shultz may be reached at and on the web at