Tips for Transitioning from Analyst to Leader

Making the professional transition from technical GIS analyst to GIS manager can be difficult. Even though employees often get promoted to these positions based on experience and competence, many lack the skills they need to become effective leaders.

New managers have to take on many new challenges, including organizing incoming projects, managing budgets, doing performance reviews, and motivating people. This can be difficult when much of the new manager’s previous work was technical and, often, routine. Imagine a programmer who is used to writing code all day but now has to navigate the politics and personalities of a dysfunctional team. This is an arduous undertaking for any manager, let alone someone who is new to leadership.

So how does someone smoothly transition from GIS analyst to GIS manager? For anyone who’s making this move or even just thinking about it, here are five suggestions for what to do from the outset to be an effective new manager.

Focus on Your Team and Seek Out Mentors

Don’t expect to jump in headfirst and change your organization’s well-established politics overnight. Instead, focus on your team. Assess its strengths and weaknesses and pay attention to internal communications. For the time being, ignore all external threats from other teams or outside organizations.

Also, look for a mentor. Some organizations offer mentoring programs or leadership connection initiatives, which are great. If your place of work doesn’t, though, look for other leaders in your organization whom you respect and ask them what management techniques work for them. Perhaps these more experienced managers could help you navigate your organization’s politics. Longtime leaders know where conflict exists and can help you effectively deal with it.

You may be able to find inspiring leaders and potential mentors outside your group or division, so cast your net wide. True leaders aren’t always managers either. Sometimes they can be people who motivate and lead from within.

Develop a Leadership Philosophy and Management Style

New managers often take what they’ve learned from their previous managers and emulate those leadership styles. This can work if your former managers were great leaders, but that’s not always the case. What’s more, different people have different dispositions, so what may work for your old boss might not work for you. You need to develop your own personal leadership philosophy and determine what kind of leader you are.

A manager sits around the table with three of his team members talking about ideas
Whether you’re managing a new group of employees or have been promoted to manager from within, you need to get to know your team members in a new way.

By definition, a philosophy acts as a guiding principle for behavior. It’s important to align your leadership philosophy with your organization’s values and beliefs. Does your organization have a strategic plan or value statements? Use those to help develop your leadership philosophy.

You can look again to other leaders you admire, both inside and outside your organization, to inform your philosophy as well. What do you like about their ideas? It doesn’t hurt to analyze leaders you dislike, too, to come up with behaviors to avoid.

It also helps to see how others perceive you. Are you an effective and motivating leader? Does your team respect you? What can you do better to motivate your employees and help them resolve conflicts?

Having a personal leadership philosophy can give you consistency in how you manage people and problems, which is extremely important to new managers. Developing a philosophy may take time, however, and it will certainly evolve as you grow.

Once you’ve established your leadership philosophy, you can develop and hone your management style. Oftentimes, new managers apply the leadership styles that worked for them when they were employees completing certain projects or dealing with team dynamics, but that doesn’t always translate. You’re now dealing with a range of employees, some of whom need clear guidance, and others who don’t require a lot of direction.

There are scores of leadership styles to pull from. Some of the main types include democratic, which encourages participation; autocratic, which centers on results and efficiency; laissez-faire, which is a hands-off approach; and servant, which focuses on listening and having empathy. Your leadership style will likely change depending on the situation. In times when you need input from your team, you may apply a democratic leadership style, but if you need to resolve conflict, you might be better served by the autocratic style. When trying to build relationships, servant-based leadership might be best.

Figure Out Your Employees’ Goals and Personalities

Whether you’re managing a new group of employees or have been promoted to manager from within, you need to get to know your team members in a new way. Meet with each of them individually first and then with the team as a whole to establish roles and responsibilities and build short-term strategic initiatives.

If you have worked with these employees before, you may already know how they operate and whether they require more or less direction. If you haven’t, you need to gain an understanding of these dynamics, and meetings are a way to do that.

Having individual meetings with your employees helps build rapport with your staff. It is also a great way to learn what motivates them and what projects they’re interested in. A previous manager may have established everyone’s roles, but people’s skills and interests change over time. It’s important to understand your employees’ personal goals for career development. This also shows that you’re interested in them individually and not just in the team’s overall success.

There are many tools, such as behavioral and cognitive tests, that help identify people’s personalities, but two of the most effective ways to do this are to listen and observe. This can help you draw out some people’s strengths and get ideas for how to build better relationships.

It’s also vital to separate yourself from any personal relationships you may have already established with individuals on your team. You don’t have to suddenly terminate friendships, but be aware that perceived favoritism could lead to conflict. I was once told that trust isn’t something you earn but something you lose. Show your team members that they can trust you and your decision-making, and they will respect you as a leader.

Step Back and Learn to Delegate

New managers sometimes find it hard to remove themselves from doing their team’s daily work and end up struggling to balance new responsibilities with old job duties. But if you continue doing the technical work, you may end up suffering from burnout and/or ignoring your team’s needs.

It’s important to allow your team to grow without your technical expertise. If you were the chief cartographer, it doesn’t help the other cartographers on your team if you continually provide feedback on colors and symbology; they need to figure this out for themselves. If you were the expert programmer, pass that skill off to one of your employees who has a passion for writing code. This frees up your time to do what you were promoted to do: manage your team.

Stepping back from the technical, day-to-day work is often one of the most difficult transitions new managers face. Just learn to let it go.

Align Your Team Goals with the Organization’s Objectives

Coming up with achievable team goals can be difficult for new managers. Remember, however, that an organization’s success relies on the success of individual teams. So align your team’s goals with those of your organization. If you don’t do this, upper-level management may not see the value in your team’s work.

Most organizations have a strategic plan that outlines what they want to achieve and how they intend to do that. Use this as the basis for setting up your team’s goals, both short and long term.

Also, look for easy wins—things that will earn your team praise and respect—and focus on those first. These can be individual or team goals and might include getting staff members training or developing standard workflows.

Longer-term goals will most likely be team oriented and are often directed by the organization’s objectives. Perhaps your team can achieve a balanced budget or maintain no more than a 5 percent backlog on projects.

It Takes Time

Moving into a managerial position can be tough, but there are tools to make the transition smooth and efficient. It will take time to develop your own leadership philosophy and management style, and getting to know your team is always an ongoing process. In the interim, take advantage of resources at work, such as mentoring networks, and seek out external opportunities, like the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association’s (URISA) GIS Leadership Academy. Also, make sure you take the time to listen to your team and adjust to your new position.

Managing GIS, a column of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA)

About the author

John Nolte

John Nolte, GISP, is the GIS manager at Denver Water. He has worked in GIS for more than 25 years and has held several managerial positions, from GIS coordinator at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, South Carolina, to asset management coordinator at the City of Westminster, Colorado. Nolte is a board member of URISA International and an instructor for the URISA GIS Leadership Academy.