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Making the transition from specialist to manager

Dr Christine Porter asks the question do specialists make good managers?

Most professional people train as specialists and have several years of postgraduate training and experience in order to help them achieve maximum effectiveness in that role. This includes people like architects, engineers, accountants, teachers, doctors, nurses and so on, and for most, career progression means promotion. .  But in many organisations, increases in money, status or power are only available if the architect or teacher, for example, is willing to take on a managerial role.   

The management role of course means carrying out a different set of duties – for at least part of the time. This gives rise to some fundamental questions, such as, does the professional specialist have the skills and personality to carry out this role? Just as importantly, do they have the desire to spend less time on their specialism and more time on managerial activities? This could be an issue if the specialist wants to simultaneously remain up to date in their specialism. Management can be increasingly time absorbing and often requires the manager to come into conflict with individual employees in their department, or to be the bearer of unpleasant news. 

A specialist may find themselves undertaking difficult tasks for which they have had no preparation. Many managers have had little or no training in management or, even if they have, it may not have been effective. This can lead specialists to take on managerial roles but to neglect the managerial aspects of their job since they have neither the inclination nor the desire to carry out such a role. It’s no surprise, then, that many UK organisations experience a ‘managerial gap’ – and a consequent lack of effective use of resources.

There are, however, four steps that organisations can take to ensure managers are recruited who are willing and able to do the job with appropriate support:

Step one – careful role definition: Many managerial roles do not carry the title manager and so the role holder can easily convince themselves that management is not an important part of their job. Examples include head teacher, chief accountant, site engineer, or department store buyer. A carefully worded job title accompanied by an explicit briefing about what the job requires is therefore essential.

Step two – recruitment and selection: Many managers are recruited in haste without adequate attention to job demands and to whether there is match between those demands and their personality or motivation to do the job. There is additionally a tendency to recruit or promote the ‘best specialist’ and assume they will automatically become a good manager. The danger, however, is that the organisation will lose a good specialist and gain a poor manager. This second step therefore involves drawing up a good job specification and using it to promote or recruit a new manager.

Step three – training and development: If the new manager has not previously had development opportunities then they will need to be developed either through a formal training programme or via alternative vehicles such as coaching or on-the-job training. This presupposes that the manager has the potential to benefit from such activities.

Step four – monitoring and evaluation: Organisations are full of examples of senior managers not supporting their junior counterparts and not taking the time to regularly monitor their progress.  Many times it is assumed that the HR department will do this, but the truth of the matter is that it is senior management who understand what the organisational objectives are and have the skills to identify at an early stage when these are not being met.

Dr Christine Porter is head of the department of human resource management at Westminster Business School, University of Westminster and co-author with W. David Rees of Skills of Management, 6th edition published in 2008 by Cengage Learning. 


  • John McLachlan

    In our experience it's cost and time effective to identify those specialists that have the potential and interests in managing people and focussing training on them. Not everyone could or should be a manager, find the financial and recognition route for specialists and allow them to focus on their skills. John McLachlan

  • Christopher Garratt

    Of course subject matter experts can become competent leaders... They simply have to realise that there is a new subject matter that they must master which is probably more complex than that they have been engaged in. They also have to realise that people do not respond as objects and engage using emotion and creativity but that when they do so engage the results can be astounding.

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