Technical Managers: what happens as you move up?

A colleague sent me this thought provoking piece about successful managers at Google. As I read it, I found myself nodding along: I’ve long been a proponent for the idea that people want to work for someone who understands their role. In my domain, a strong technologist attracts strong technologists.

There’s a problem with this idea though: the further up we go the wider our remit. Unless we’re Elon Musk we can’t be deeply knowledgeable about everything (and even Elon has limits: his ‘unorthodox’ PR skills are not helping him right now).

So once you take on a team that specializes in a domain other than yours, what to do? It seems to me that all the soft skills come across but it’s not realistic to expect to become expert in another domain. How do you ensure that your newly adopted team don’t view you as being disconnected from their work? One clear thing that has worked for me is to ensure you focus on the issues and areas outside of your comfort zone. Another important behavior is to continue to delegate and trust: you won’t be successful micro managing a team you barely understand.

Conversely, can being a successful domain specific manager limit your ability to move up? If you’re seen as a strong domain expert does that limit your opportunities? Is this a subconscious attempt at pre-empting the Peter Principle?