Out of the Test Tube and Into the Fire: Preparing Technologists for Managerial Responsibility

Managers with engineering or scientific backgrounds have risen to the top of many of the world's leading organizations. Indeed, one of the traditional routes to corporate success has been to add an MBA to a first degree in a technical discipline. Clearly, a technical background is not a bar to highly effective managerial performance.

Yet, in reality, the leap from technical to managerial responsibility is a difficult and even daunting one for many technologists. They are initially attracted to a technical discipline because it allows them to apply their strength in analysis, to focus on hard facts and to deal with a world built on known and predictable phenomena.

Management, on the other hand, is a highly subjective area of human endeavour. Often the manager must resolve conflicts between individual viewpoints without the luxury of waiting until hard facts emerge. Managerial solutions require interpersonal skills as often as analytical problem-solving.

Technologists can be just as competent as managers as their non-technical counterparts if they have developed the appropriate skills. However, these managerial skills have usually had a low priority in their previous career and education. In order to redress this balance, it is help-ful to design management activities with the specific needs of prospective technical managers in mind. This paper examines several ways in which such management development strategies differ from those intended for potential managers from non-technical backgrounds.

Whenever individuals are lumped together into arbitrary categories, there is the danger of overgeneralization and stereotyping. This is certainly the case here, where a conscious attempt is made to draw many individuals from a wide range of technical disciplines under a common umbrella simply because the share the common experience of a scientific or engineer-ing background. I believe that this approach is a valid one. Nevertheless, it is always wise to be alert for those who are exceptions to the general trend and to deal with them accordingly.

One category of potential technical managers provides a case in point. Many organizations try to identify incoming staff with the talent, ability and motivation to move into the very highest levels of management and to prepare this pool of potential future leaders accordingly. Some members of this group may well come from technical backgrounds. Admission to the "fast track" usually presupposes a broad array of management-related talent and skills. Management development requirements for technical members of this elite group will differ little from those of their non-technical colleagues. These prospective leaders of tomorrow are not the topic of this paper.

Rather, the focus is on the much larger pool of scientists and engineers who enter their organi-zations as technical professionals. When they join the organization, they may or may not as-pire to technical management positions (many will not). During the initial stages of their careers, however, the day-to-day focus is clearly that of a professional rather than of a man-ager (or potential manager). This is the group with whom we are dealing here.

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It…seems probable that the most creative thinking occurs at the meeting places of disciplines. At the center of any tradition, it is easy to become blind to alternatives. At the edges, where lines are blurred, it is easier to imagine that the world might be different. Vision sometimes arises from confusion.
Mary Catherine Bateson
Composing a Life