Technical to leadership transition

Published: 26th February 2021

By Jennifer Howe, Head of Sales & Marketing, Trevor Roberts

While promoting a technical gun to a leadership position may seem like a great choice, the roles are very different. Here’s how to overcome hurdles that may arise.

Chris* worked in technical support and had been with the council for almost seven years. He was a skilled and diligent worker, popular with his peers and trusted by his bosses. When a team leader role became vacant, Chris was the obvious choice. Fast forward six months and things had not gone as well as expected. Chris was struggling. He was missing deadlines, appeared overworked and somehow less confident. What had gone wrong?

Leadership promotion opportunities arise for a range of reasons such as natural attrition or back-filling, where succession planning—if done well—has identified, and developed one or more candidates for the roles.  Often these new roles are filled by an existing staff member. There are huge advantages to promoting from within, such as it is a clear demonstration that an organisation provides career development opportunities, and new leaders have the organisational knowledge and relationships to hit the ground running. However, there are a host of challenges to overcome for the new leader, particularly in this first, “technical to leadership” transition.

Here are six of the most common challenges we’ve seen. 

  1. Renegotiating relationships
    Moving from being “one of the gang” to a team leader means people will treat you differently than before. It takes time and effort for new leaders to reframe and then renegotiate each relationship. 

  2. Letting go of technical or specialist expertise
    While leadership roles still need a high level of content knowledge to be able to understand issues and context, the role of a leader starts to shift the balance, requiring the individual to develop new skills in non-technical areas such as people management and strategy. 

  3. Shifting identity to be that of a leader
    Becoming a leader requires reconceptualizing who you are now and from where you get your sense of self-worth. The self-talk needs to be: “I am a leader now and leadership itself has inherent value—this is how I add value, which is different to how I used to add value”.
  4. Keeping out of the detail
    When you have done a particular job, and then you manage others who do that job, it can be very hard to allow them to do the work in their own way. 
  5. Learning to deal with ambiguity
    Professionals who work in complex, technical roles are taught to collect the facts, analyse data and make logical decisions. Ambiguity increases with each leadership level and learning how to be comfortable with this is critical. With all of the challenges faced when transitioning from a technical to a leadership role, what can organisations, more specifically HR and line managers do to support new? Luckily, there are many things an organisation can do to set up new leaders for success. 
Transitioning from a technical role to a leadership role requires consistent support from the wider business

Transitioning from a technical role to a leadership role requires consistent support from the wider business


To give new leaders the best chance of success, organisations can:

1.     Help the leader to focus on the leadership aspects and KPIs of their role. This will help them shift their focus and also help them experience early success as a leader.
2.    Have a clear leadership framework in place for the organisation, defining what good performance looks like as a leader.
3.    Provide an experienced internal mentor to help the new leader to establish themselves as a leader.
4.    Create a psychologically safe environment for the new leader to raise issues.
5.     Teach the new leader coaching skills, either through a training course or providing reading materials (e.g. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Bungay Stainer, 2016). 
6.    Provide training in the specific areas that the leader might be struggling with, such as time management or having difficult conversations. Ideally, development discussions are happening regularly and frequently between the leader and their manager.
7.    Last but not least, invest in a coaching program for the leader. This offers a completely confidential and safe environment for the leader to raise issues, brainstorm solutions, and debrief on what they have tried.


* Names and roles have been changed. Trevor-Roberts is a pre-qualified provider of Human Resources & Employee Services for Training and Development under Local Buy BUS278.