Tips for Managing Technical and Professional Workers

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By William J. Rothwell

Managing technical and professional workers can be especially challenging, some believe. Generally speaking, these workers are more educated than the average worker. They typically do not respond well to authoritarian, directive management styles, which are so common—whether or not admitted—in many organizations. Those who lead such workers need special competencies to engage and manage these people effectively. And those competencies should be demonstrated on a daily basis.

The Unique Challenges

There are several unique challenges involved in managing technical and professional workers, and these challenges plague many organizations. Indeed, they are the common source of many problems. Meeting these challenges can go a long way toward establishing a climate that engages the workers, reduces turnover, and encourages productivity and innovation.

Challenge 1: Choosing the Leaders of Technical/Professional Workers

A common mistake many organizations make is to promote technical and professional workers up the corporate ladder, based upon their job performance, technical skills or credentials, and loyalty to the firm. Many managers—and, indeed, many workers—assume that good performance in a job should be an important consideration in making decisions about promotions to higher levels (1). While it is true that a promote-from-within policy does encourage people, and it usually leads to good worker morale, it is a fallacy to assume that success at one level will guarantee success at higher levels (2). In short, good technical or professional workers—people with a solid grasp of their fields and the ability to deliver good results—do not always make good managers or leaders of technical or professional workers. There simply is more to it than that. To begin, managers and leaders of technical and professional workers need to have good interpersonal skills. Lack of these good interpersonal skills, including an appreciation of how people feel (what some call emotional intelligence), has led to many promotion mistakes.

A related problem is, of course, if the decision to promote is not based on past experience, how can decision makers know that a technical or professional worker will make a good manager or leader? After all, there is no way to observe how that person would function in that capacity. Does success as an individual contributor mean that an individual will be a good project leader? Not always. Does success as a project leader mean that an individual will be a good department head? Not always. There’s more to picking people for higher-level responsibilities than leaping to conclusions, especially when there are no facts to support those conclusions.

One possible solution is to use realistic job tryouts, in which individuals temporarily assume responsibility for higher-level positions when their immediate supervisors are on vacation, out sick, or traveling to business meetings. Over time, these people’s demonstrated ability to perform at a higher level is tested and thus their real development needs can be determined based on experience. While it is possible to use 360-degree assessments, assessment centers, or other approaches to assessing an individual’s ability to perform at higher levels, none of these approaches is as effective as having him or her actually do the work and observing the performance.

Challenge 2: Training and Developing Managers of Technical/Professional Workers

Another common mistake many organizations make is to assume that, to lead or manage technical or professional workers, all people need is the requisite technical or professional background. Often, the only credential required to manage medical doctors as hospital department head is a medical degree; the only credential required to be a department head in a university is a Ph.D. in the field; and the only credential required to manage salespersons is sales experience (3). The same principle seems to dominate for many technical and professional jobs: The manager need only have suitable education and/or experience in the subject matter.

But is that all it takes? Of course, this is not to say that everyone should walk around with a business degree or an MBA; after all, nobody said that business degrees prepare people to manage other people. Indeed, business schools have often been criticized for inadequately preparing students to be future managers of human beings. The MBA curriculum prepares people to analyze data, not manage people.

So what is the solution? Many organizations take up the slack by formulating, implementing, and evaluating internal programs to teach managers, or aspiring managers, how to lead people. This is particularly important for managers of technical and professional people, for the simple reason that these workers often have a ‘‘people deficit’’(4). That is, their interpersonal skills are not good. These special programs, therefore, address this ‘‘people deficit’’ with programs aimed at leaders of technical and professional people (5). Similarly, some universities have established minors in leadership for technical or professional workers, so as to help students prepare to work effectively with others and improve their interpersonal skills.

Challenge 3: Maintaining the Quality of People Management

The quality of management in any part of any organization can, and does, have an impact on productivity and on turnover. Research on turnover repeatedly shows that the behavior of managers influences workers’ decisions to leave(6). Poor management behavior can also lead to disengaged workers, those who are not only unproductive but also so angry that they actively work to sabotage their employers. While managers may not be able to motivate people—motivation may come from within—it certainly is possible to ‘‘demotivate’’ people by treating them badly. How can that problem be solved? There are several ways, of course. One is to promote based, in part, on an individual’s people skills. A second is to train managers on how to apply effective interpersonal competencies.

Leadership Competencies for Managing Technical/Professional Workers

The most effective managers of technical and professional workers make use of what might be called the new essential skills (7). They are only new in the sense that, according to research, they have grown more important in recent years.

In addition to the requisite technical competencies and skills needed to give them credibility with those they oversee, technical managers should possess business acumen, advanced communication and interpersonal skills, critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, coaching and mentoring skills, capability of managing business change, and good financial management skills. It can be most useful to prepare managers of technical and professional workers by giving them training that develops these skills and any others that may be critical to achieving future business objectives. Management needs to provide aspiring or practicing managers with opportunities to learn the theories behind these skills and then to demonstrate their mastery of them. Hands-on practice, through role play and eventually on-the-job coaching, can be most effective in upgrading the quality of technical and professional management. That, in turn, can lead to solid results for the business (8).

(1) William J. Rothwell, Effective Succession Planning: Ensuring Leadership Continuity and Building Talent from Within, 4th ed. (New York: AMACOM, 2010).
(2) Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, reprint (New York: HarperBusiness, 2009).
(3) Monica Favia, An Initial Competency Model for Sales Managers at Fifteen B2B Organizations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 2010.
(4) J. Daniel Sherman, “Technical Supervision and Turnover Among Engineers and Technicians: Influencing Factors in the Work Environment,” Group and Organization Management 14, no. 4 (1989): 411–421.
(5) Gene Dixon, “Can We Lead and Follow?” Engineering Management Journal 21, no. 1 (2009): 34–41; Jerry C. Meyer and Gregg F. Martin, “Join the Campaign: Engineer Leader Technical Competency,” Engineer 38, no. 1 (2008): 4–7; Anne Milkovich, Management Btyes: Ten Essential Skills for Technical Managers (Roseville, CA: Penmarin Books, 2005).
(6) William J. Rothwell, “Organization Retention Assessment,” in The 2007 Pfeiffer Annual: Consulting, ed. E. Beich (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007), pp. 177–188.
(7) Julie Zinn and Raed Haddad, “The New Essential Skills,” Industrial Engineer 39, no. 5 (2007): 35–39.
(8) E. Casey Wardynski, David S. Lyle, and William E. Mohr, “Developing an Engineer Leader Technical Competency Strategy: Accessing, Developing, Employing, and Retaining Talent,” Engineer 38, no. 2 (2008): 20.

© 2011 William J. Rothwell. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of the publisher from Invaluable Knowledge: Securing Your Company’s Technical Expertise, by William J. Rothwell. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (

About the Author(s)

William J. Rothwell is professor of learning and performance at Pennsylvania State University and president of Rothwell & Associates, a consultancy with more than 40 multinational clients.