Technical team leaders are rarely natural project managers

I overhead a conversation about a technical leader’s lack of leadership. The team leader was being acknowledged as a technical expert but blasted for his lack of management skills.

It was assumed this leader was deliberately making his juniors look incompetent, delegating things they did not know how to do but not teaching or correcting them, and not thanking anyone for their contribution. In short, they assumed he was a bully.

I held an alternative conclusion. He was someone who exercised technical leadership and was put into a position of team leadership. He was trying to juggle his expert status with a lack of time and the early stages of his management career. This guy was exposed and it sounded like he had no support: the expectation was he’d learn to be a manager in his spare time. What spare time?

The failing was not with this technical lead but the managers who put him in this position without training or coaching in planning and coaching staff.

Management and especially project management is a skill set that you must learn. It rarely comes naturally. Technical expertise in the area the project works in can hinder the learning curve because when difficult issues arise a technical leader will try to do the work rather than manage it. That leaves the project without any management at a time when it is most needed.

The best thing I found to develop my career as a project manager was to not be the expert. I suggest managers think carefully about appointing technical leads as project managers. Second them out to a different type of project to learn how to manage projects beside someone who is an expert in that sort of project. Not being able to solve the issues yourself makes you focus on the management of the project, coaching and delegation, and learning to ask the questions that help technical leaders solve difficult problems. Only when you have those skills should you return to run project in your own area of expertise.