Over the course of my 40 year career, I am lucky to have been entrusted with upgrading the skills of world class, very highly competent technical people who are not good managers.
“Not good” in an understatement.
Morton solved all problems on his own, belittling his 23 member team. Zehava worked 19 hours a day, proofing reading her proofreaders edits, and generally finding errors! Gordon could not make a clear decision; he was constantly dithering. Jacques gave the same task to 5 people, and ensured they did not know about the others, “to avoid hurting their feelings”.
Generally, these technical experts tend to have several of the following characteristics:
- They see only certain types of detail, blind to other types of detail.
- They tend to be impatient.
- They over-rely on themselves.
- They do not understand underlying people/political dynamics until it’s pointed out, and even then, they may not get it.
- They troubleshoot well and fail in routine.
- They do not communicate effectively with employees or peers, yet senior management is by and large satisfied with their overall skill set.
What is the best idea to work with someone like this?
Well, similar to what historian Prof Uzi Rabi claims about the ‘best idea” to tackle the woes of the Mid East region: “there is no best idea”. There are many leads to follow, some may work for some, but nothing works wonders.
Here is what I have found to be useful.
- Acknowledge their expertise. The expertise is who they are. Once they feel you respect them, they listen better.
- Show your own expertise. Be an expert, not a facilitator. Experts respect other experts, especially those with a different expertise. This may mean that you need to be more prescriptive than thought-provoking. No big deal.
- Let them talk, then ready, aim and fire. These managers are used to being on top of things; they will assume that YOU don’t understand. Let them explain, even if they ramble on-then ask for stage time. Aim first. You don’t have too many arrows in your sling before you can be dismissed.
- (Over) Use logic when possible; if they do not understand, tell them that you are teaching them a different logic they do not yet understand.
- Work with their teams to lessen the expectation for managerial babysitting.
- Use their technical analogies, like, “we need a system reboot for the way you get marketing and sales to work together” or, “let’s look at this from a system architect perspective”, or “let’s debug the process”.
Trial and error, no grand theory, lots of patience, and learn to love or leave. It’s not easy. I love it.