When generalists have to manage specialists
The higher your role is in the organization, the greater is the chance that you will be taking decisions in areas where you are not the expert
As tasks become more complex, people will have to learn how to collaborate with specialists to bring their ideas to the market
When the opportunity to lead the implementation of an ERP software across the region came up, I was the first one to volunteer. This was the late nineties and IT was the black box everyone wanted to open. I had to manage a team of specialists and learn project management skills which were not my strength. The project needed me to relocate to the region and live in a new country. Living and working in a different country had its own set of challenges. When I stepped into the office I had a sinking feeling that this time I had bitten off much more than what I could chew. There were too many unknown variables going off at the same time.
My biggest fear was that I could not write a single line of code to save my life. I suspect my team knew this just as well. Their contempt for having a non-techie in the project seemed like a total waste of precious headcount. What value could I possibly add other than calling for meetings to review progress?
As we move into a multi-generational workplace, we will all experience the challenge of managing teams of specialists, novices and experienced old timers. Sometimes you will be the voice of reason and sanity, sometimes you will be the voice of innovation and disruption. What happens when the leader is none of the above? How can the person lead a team where everyone is more experienced or more knowledgeable than the leader?
The higher your role is in the organization, the greater is the chance that you will be taking decisions in areas where you are not the expert. Think of the role of a CEO. He/she is expected to lead and take decisions in areas where he/she may not have had any in-depth knowledge. Whether it is a decision involving technology or market share or the right level of compensation, the choices are put together by a team of specialists. The CEO will often invite people from various functions to weigh in and debate the pros and cons of the decision. Having done that, the CEO is well prepared to lead the organization down the chosen path.
Leading a team of specialists is an opportunity for you to follow the same model.
Talk to your manager
There must be a reason why the organization decided to put you into the role. What strengths of yours did they wish to leverage? What are the key deliverables in that role? Find out what developmental gaps will get addressed by being in that role. When you struggle to get your arms around the role, remind yourself about the areas of development and tell yourself that the role is also helping you grow.
You will also have naysayers. They will tell you all possible reasons why you are unprepared for the role. Tell them that no one is ever a hundred percent prepared and ready to step into any role. If they were that prepared, they would get bored within the first few days of taking up the role. That would be dreadful. Opportunities to learn keep us fresh.
Get to know the team members
Spend time knowing the human being behind the role. This means going beyond the role and trying to understand the person’s educational and professional background in detail. That will help you to leverage the person’s skills in multiple areas. What special skills does this person have that others could benefit from? What other roles could this person enjoy doing? What kind of problems has this person solved repeatedly over the years? Every person has spent the proverbial ten thousand hours doing something. Make that person the expert of that area. Find out the network the person has built over the years. Don’t be afraid of saying, “I don’t know.” You are not expected to know everything about everything!
Then share your vision and seek feedback of the person to fine tune the plan. This also enables a much greater buy-in of the vision. Look for opportunities to integrate the silos in your team. Being the unifier and setting direction is an important contribution the leader can make.
Leverage your network
Bring the power of your network to make things happen for the team. Leverage your internal network to bring their contributions to the notice of other leaders. Leverage your position to bring prominence to your team members. Invite your peers in the organization and across the industry to come and address the team members. That helps the team to get an outside in view and bring fresh ideas in to work. Actively build a network of peers with whom you can trade ideas and challenges that you are grappling with.
Create a development plan for yourself
Education: As you talk to your team members and people across the organization, ask them how they stay current. Ask them about books or blogs you can follow. Ask them to name three experts they admire. The names that show up frequently in the list will be your go-to group. Then read up and educate yourself about the area.
Exposure: Knowing different ways of doing the same thing can work wonders for your confidence. You can build this by watching different people do the same task. Take notes and observe what they are doing differently. Ask questions when you observe someone approaching the task differently.
Experience: All the notes that you take will not improve your skills unless you try out something and make mistakes. Knowing that the leader is comfortable learning new skills by experimenting can be a great motivator. That encourages them to stop being afraid of failure. Humility to learn can be a great asset.
As tasks become more complex, people will have to learn how to collaborate with specialists to bring their ideas to the market. This needs a new breed of leaders who have the courage to experiment, have the humility to accept their failures. If someone has not failed, that only means that they do not set audacious goals for themselves. Digital leadership is all about dreaming big.