Managing Outside Your Area of Expertise

Most new managers get promoted into a position in which they manage people doing the same thing they were doing before they got promoted.  Software developers become software development managers.  Sales reps become sales managers.  Clerks at the supermarket become managers of clerks at the supermarket.

It seems pretty obvious and makes natural sense.  The best person to supervise a task is someone who is an expert at doing that task herself.  This allows the manager to directly train, supervise, mentor, and evaluate the employees who are being managed.

However, what happens when a manager progresses higher in the organization?  Taken to its extreme, the “manager as expert” rule would require that a CEO be an expert in sales, finance, product development, marketing, manufacturing, human resources, and any other discipline in the company.  It’s not a realistic expectation.

One of my most rewarding managerial experiences came when I took over responsibility for some areas in which I was not an expert.  I was VP of Engineering for a software startup that had recently been acquired.  As we became integrated into our new parent company, I took over the role of “Site Manager” for our entire location.  The rest of the integration wasn’t yet complete, so we retained many of the normal functions of a small company: finance, HR, IT, and facilities.  In a short time, each of these functions reported to me.

I wasn’t an expert in any of these areas.  I had a reasonable grasp of what our IT group did, since the Engineering team I ran was the primary IT customer.  When it came to finance and HR, I was pretty clueless.  I have to admit – there was a little bit of “Uh oh – now what do I do?” panic on my part.

Lucky for me, we had some very capable people in place.  Most important was Kris, our controller.  She had complete responsibility for the financial operations.  In addition, because one of the startup’s original founders had left, she had also been managing HR for a few months.  Kris was wonderful – the ideal co-worker and employee.  She was smart, knowledgeable, and professional.  She took initiative without being unaccountable or unmanageable.

My first action seemed pretty clear.  I met with Kris and acknowledged what was obvious to both of us: she knew her functional area and I didn’t.  I further explained that, as far as I knew, there weren’t any immediate problems that needed to be corrected, but I could be wrong.  After that, I just listened.  Kris explained the current challenges, along with the status quo things that worked just fine.  I asked where she thought she needed help and we discussed a few areas where we could improve things.

I repeated that interaction with the managers of the other groups – IT, HR, Facilities, Customer Support.    Those initial meetings provided the model for our working relationships as we moved forward.  We established mutual trust, which served as the foundation for all of our communications.

What did I learn?  Here are the key points of advice for managing an area outside your own expertise:

1.  Recruit capable people who deserve your trust

This is critically important (and can be the most difficult to achieve, if you’re not as lucky as I was with the team I inherited).  As a manager, it’s essential to have confidence that you’re getting accurate information and that your input will be accepted.

2.  Agree on (and clearly articulate) the objectives

Make sure that everyone understands what the goals are and how you expect the team to get there.  Let the people who understand their functions develop the detailed tactical plans.

3.  Manage by asking the right questions, rather than by providing answers

Even when you’re not an expert, you still need to provide guidance.  The best way to do that is to ensure that good thought processes are used.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions that reveal your ignorance.  Don’t just accept a decision (or an answer or a recommendation).  Ask why.  Ask for alternatives.  Ask why those other options weren’t chosen.  Ask “what if?”

4.  Ask how you can help

Even when you have trusting relationships with people reporting to you, those same people can be reluctant to ask for help.  Pre-empt that reluctance by offering your help.  Ask what you can do.  Ask if there are obstacles.  Ask if there’s a better way to do something.  After you ask, listen.  Really listen.

All of this advice can work just as well for managers who are responsible for things they understand well – there’s nothing that constrains this advice to “things I don’t know anything about.”

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Don’t panic if you’re asked to take on new responsibilities.

Solid management practices still make sense.

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