Not every developer is a good team leader

We’ve all heard of stories about teams and companies where people report: “We lost a good developer to gain a mediocre team leader.”

Unlocking tech talent stories

March 15, 2021

We’ve all heard of stories about teams and companies where people report: “We lost a good developer to gain a mediocre team leader.” Some of us probably experienced this in the first person or saw this happening with colleagues or friends.

The famous “Peter Principle” explains this phenomenon: employees are promoted based on their previous jobs’ success until they reach an individual incompetence level. This phenomenon is more critical with tech careers where developer skills in one job or position do not necessarily translate to management skills in another one.

Despite the success of some famous “techies” in contemporary societies (Larry Page, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg), we still make a strong connection between career and professional success with the stereotypes of management achievements, wealthy businessmen, or an entrepreneur that raised money in a considerable funding round.

Changes in career models

The structure of career concepts is collapsing due to the impactful changes that are happening and will continue to occur throughout jobs, companies, and people. It’s evolving from models where people learn to acquire competencies for the career to models where the career is a learning experience.

Career development is no longer fixed, it’s much more fluid and dynamic than it used to be, and should offer many ways to develop. A consistent career does not come from status but results.

That is more critical in technology-related roles where the employees’ skills need to evolve in line with new technologies and business requirements. These changes require that technology talent need to become investigators and strategists looking for significant orientation to guide them through shaping the technologies.

Technical career progression evolved from the traditional “ballistic track” (junior developer->mid developer->senior developer->manager) to a variety of career paths: boomerang, duals, butterfly, zig-zag, etc.

Traditional career path vs variety of career paths

Success in a tech career

Technical expertise is a differentiator in tech career progression. The basis for building success is to acknowledge and accommodate the existence of two main categories of professional advancement:

  • Management roles: progression is linked essentially to the size of their business managed, with the capacity to lead and develop others and fine-tuning teams to be the most impactful.
  • Professionals/specialists roles: progression relies on an ever-increasing mastery of their position. Their development rests on the level of expertise recognized by internal our — equally important — external reviews. Their ability to teamwork and to share knowledge to solve business issues is also critical.

Managers and companies should equally recognize these main categories and allow that all should access the highest levels of responsibility. So, if success is not related to going up in the ranks and moving to management, what is it related with?

As the clear-cut steps up the career ladder vanish, tech professionals are looking at their jobs in a new way — they’re looking for challenging, exciting work rather than the next traditional step to take. Success no longer means just the quest for the next promotion or raise. It’s about personal success and satisfying, meaningful work, becoming highly dependent on what motivates and drives each individual.

How to do it?

There are no easy or “right” answers when helping your reports succeed in their careers. To effectively develop your direct reports through career issues, you need to accept that every person’s needs will differ. Those needs can and probably will change — sometimes rapidly. In this sense, career drivers are a big moving target.

Developing “people” should be the number one value for managers. You can achieve it through better anticipation, dialogue, and individual initiatives.

  • Create moments to discuss career issues: Caring and sharing long-term career goals is ultimately the report’s call. So, give space and let them know you are interested in the topic. Inject career-oriented questions and comments in your daily interactions and your regular 1on1. Educate your team in terms of career goals and let those discussions emerge.
  • Ask good questions: Instead of providing answers, practice and excel in asking good career questions to launch and sustain career conversations. That will help you past your assumptions about what you think your report wants as well as their assumptions about what they think they might want.
  • Explore what motivates your reports: When talking about motivation, do not look into the extrinsic motivators (external rewards such as payments, bonuses, or promotions). You should explore and potentiate the intrinsic ones, the innate desires to do well, and the eagerness for self-control and self-direction in accomplishing objectives.
  • Set training goals and execute a plan: To provide more direction, help your report think about concrete learning goals. Set objectives to meet their goals matching the most appropriate approach and adjusted to how they learn best.
  • Identify gaps and enable growth: Given what you know about your direct reports’ goals and abilities, as well as the opportunities and possible career paths, you can suggest areas to focus. Almost everyone wants to feel they’re making progress, so you can set more significant challenges, grant more responsibilities, adjust or expand the role. Even buffing up job title can pave the way for a future move or provide the recognition someone feels is due.

Remember that not every developer is a good team leader. Your role is to help your direct reports manage their career and find alternative career progression paths that don’t necessarily mean growing into a manager.

Put in place action plans to respond to the changing environment in which it operates while considering each employee’s wishes concerning personal and professional development and their desire to be recognized for their contribution to the business.

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