Transitioning From Propeller-head to a Department-head

Transitioning From Propeller-head to a Department-head

6.7 min read

Dave Hooper

I remember my first project as a newly promoted project manager.  While I had received academic training in business administration and economics, I had begun my career among the technical ranks.  My promotion to project manager was largely due to my ability to code programs in CICS assembler, Cobol, and at the time the newly emerging programming languages called “4GLs”.  What I soon found out was that technical roles do little to prepare a person to advance into a management level position. I was not yet aware of the leadership required interacting with a team.  In many ways a technical person is even hindered from making such a transition.

There are stages that a person with a technical background will visit while transitioning into management.  The first stop is typically project management, the natural progression for a person who has spent considerable time as a successful project team member.  A successful experience in project management may eventually lead to the next stage of a senior staff management position such as a department head, divisional manager or even vice president.   It is during the first stage, project management that a technical person begins to encounter the issues that arise when making the transition into management.  How well one adapts and begins to demonstrate leadership will likely determine the pace at which they progress through management.

In my experience I have witnessed many people make the same transition that I made, moving from programmer, to analyst, to project manager (PM, as we call it), to department head.  Some succeeded, but many if not most either failed or became average PMs. The ingrained habit of personally defining specifications, designing and implementing solutions, and solving technical problems becomes a hurdle to overcome during the transition to management.  In short, it is difficult for a “hands on” person to suddenly find themselves “hands off” in a similar way that a new coach finds it difficult to stay off the field.  Here are some tips to help a “propeller head” traverse the path to project management.

Jump ahead – define the objective

When I found myself a project manager for the first time I was shocked to find that I had no idea how to get started.  I knew how to execute but had never planned, motivated, and driven a project as the PM.  I knew how to enter information into a project plan but could not seem to get the project off the ground. What was being required of me were the essential qualities expected of a leader. Frustrated and struggling, I sought advice from a seasoned PM in my company.  He advised me simply to, “jump ahead of them and they will follow you”.  Good advice and still effective. How do you jump ahead? By defining the project in terms of the overall objectives and benefits to the team members as well as clearly spelling out the roles, responsibilities and expectations.  My mentor immediately helped me prepare a meeting to define the project objectives and assignments. My seasoned PM was telling me I needed to create a vision!

An important consideration when establishing an objective is its level of difficulty and how it could contribute to the team member’s need for achievement.  If the objective is perceived to be too easy, the team member is not motivated.  If the objective is perceived to be unattainable, the team member is again not motivated.  It is only when the objective is perceived to be both challenging and attainable that motivation of the team is achieved.

Before the team can begin the project, they must know exactly what they are expected to do.  Clearly articulated objectives, team participation in goal setting and action planning, and objectives that are challenging but attainable are the keys to driving a project team forward and maximizing performance.  Key steps required to jump ahead as an effective leader include:

1. Define the project objectives and clearly communicate how successfully completing the project will benefit the company and the team members.

2. Working with each team member, determine his or her project role, responsibilities, and objectives.

3. For each team member, develop an action plan to achieve project objectives and ask the team member for his or her commitment.

4. Offer your confidence and support to the team member and set up a follow up time for progress review.

Stay at a high level

One of the first tasks that I assigned to myself as a new PM was to code several programs that needed to be developed by the project team.  I was intending to help the other team members by being “one of them”.   Not to mention that I enjoyed programming.  Big mistake.  When the coach grabs a helmet and lines up on the field there is no one coaching, adjusting the game plan to adapt to on-going changes, planning new plays, making the decision whether to go for it on fourth down, etc.   But the urge for a technical person to delve back into the details is great.  It is essential that the PM stay at a high level and direct the project or the project will go undirected.  Change management, issue management, navigating obstacles, and leveraging the team by coaching the members is essential to success as a leader.  In addition, there is momentum produced by team members as they progress on a project, achieving each milestone to completion. This energy is sapped as the leader interferes with or micromanages areas in which other team members are responsible.

One way to stay at a high level is to prepare a “project notebook” at the outset of the project. The project notebook will keep the PM at a 30,000-foot view.  The project notebook contains all project documents, status reports, Gantt charts, project plans, issue logs, change control forms, etc.  Constantly and accurately maintaining this information will force the manager to stay at a high level while also adding to his or her efficiency.  Many companies possess web based software running on their intranet that will serve the same function as a repository for all project related documents and greatly enhance the usefulness of the information.

Leverage the team

Effective managers always lead with a coaching style.  They find the key to leveraging other people in order to get a project completed successfully.  And that key is to identify and maintain the proper balance between supporting employees at appropriate times when they need support and not intruding on the force they generate by self-reliance and self-direction. Leaders with a technical background tend to want to direct others much like they directed themselves to achieve technical assignments.  A technical person wants to “do it themselves”.  Though unnatural at first, it will make management a great deal easier and will drive success more quickly if the technical person learns to leverage the team as contrasted in the following table.

Directing the team Leveraging the team
Dictates Collaborates
Directs/tells Develops/asks
Reinforces Hierarchy Reinforces Networking
Holds Back Information Shares Information
Encourages Dependency Encourages Self-management
Allows Less Autonomy Allows More Autonomy

That first project that I had the opportunity to manage was a real learning experience about leadership.  Having had primarily a technical background, I had not been prepared to let go and rely on others achieve success.  Since then I have made it a practice to jump ahead immediately by defining the clear objectives, maintain a high level big-picture view, and leverage the talents and abilities of the team that I manage. In a nutshell, I have learned the value of providing a vision!  And I haven’t coded a program in years.

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About the author:

 Dave has over 17 years of experience in information technology, technology services and management.  He has provided management and technical consulting to numerous Fortune 500 companies and is currently Senior Vice President of services for Computer Associates, International.   He has a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems and Economics from Bowling Green State University and an MBA in systems management from Baldwin Wallace College.


  • Quote of the Day

    “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

    — General George Patton