Four Keys to Managing Outside of Your Area of Technical Competence

When we ask newly promoted, first-time supervisors why they got their supervisory job, they almost always say it was because they were really good at getting technical results in their last job.  In other words, they became supervisors because they were very technically competent.

But what happens when people progress in management and find themselves managing people who are much more technically competent than they are?  What if they are totally out of their area of technical competence?  How do they manage under these conditions?  Do they admit their lack of technical competence or “fake it until they make it”?

Has this happened to you?  Is it possible that it might happen at some point in your career?  To help you answer these questions, we offer you four keys to success when managing outside of your area of technical competence.

  1. Honestly evaluate your competencies.  We can’t all know everything so an honest evaluation of your competencies will help you identify where you either need help from others or where you need to seek education for yourself.  I can honestly say that I am not competent when it comes to development of websites or just about anything IT.   I also know that my time is much better spent not taking a lot of time attempting to become proficient in this area.  I have made the decision to delegate this area to someone else; someone with a lot more competence than I have, which leads to Key #2.
  2. Seek the support of those who are competent.  You can’t “fake it” for long and when you are discovered your credibility and influence will most likely be reduced.   There is no shame in admitting that you don’t know how to do something or how to do it well.  Look for those on your team who have the competency or competencies needed and delegate to them, while at the same time attempting to gain an appropriate level of competence for yourself.  I know there are some computer programs that I need the ability to navigate and use in my daily activities.  For these I have taken the time to gain proficiency.  Everything else IT is delegated with delight!
  3. Show thanks for the support of others.  People need to feel appreciated and showing thanks for the competencies of others on your team is important to the development of respect and relationship.  Make sure you thank those who help you gain competencies or who take away the need for you to do so by handling it themselves.  This is exactly what I have done with many of my IT needs and I always try to remember to show gratitude to those who take on this role.
  4. Use ‘Best Boss’ skills to manage.  Use the same skills that thousands of our students have consistently identified over the last 20 years when asked to describe the best boss they ever had.  Your employees will likely give you the benefit of the doubt while you seek to grow in technical competence, if they have already experienced the benefits of your non-technical competence.  To help you with this, we will continue throughout 2012 to use The RAD Group Newsletter to explore the Top 20 Characteristics of a ‘Best Boss‘.  To refresh your memory, revisit the ‘Best Boss’ Newsletter Archive and keep an eye on your email inbox for future editions.

No boss can know everything.  ‘Best Bosses’ know that their primary responsibility is not to be competent in all of the technical aspects under their control, but rather to surround themselves with competent people and treat them with respect.

Managing From a Distance

Have you ever called a direct report on the phone and given him precise instructions, only to find later that he did not follow through on what you requested? Or have you endured a “30-minute” video conference meeting that lasted two hours, only to close with no resolution? If so, then welcome to the exciting world of remote communication and management. Virtually anywhere you can find people communicating and managing from a distance.  You can also find missed information, poor accountability, a lack of follow-through and a good deal of frustration.

Advances in communication technologies over the past decade have had a significant impact on the oil and gas industry. To date, however, most of us have been slow to acknowledge that effective remote management requires not only communication technologies but also a special set of skills and an understanding of how communication works when it is conducted through teleconferencing, videoconferencing, e-mail and the like.

The oil and gas industry is trying to resolve this problem by training employees to recognize and respond to the challenges of communicating and managing remotely.

Remote communication carries many inherent challenges, not the least of which is the challenge of accurately conveying the intent of your message. The little ways that you communicate your intent in face-to-face communication are often so subtle and habitual that you are not even aware of them. A slight twist of the lip transforms a harmless comment into a sarcastic criticism. A momentary glance in one direction indicates the object to which you are referring. But when communication takes place over telephone or e-mail, these critical expressions aren’t there.

All too often, we go about our business communicating as normal, unaware that an essential part of our message will never reach our audience. And we wonder why that direct report failed to do exactly what we told him over the phone.

Are we doomed to sacrifice the clarity of our messages for the operational benefits of managing from a distance? Fortunately, the answer is no, but it will require specialized training, which can pass on lessons learned by observing some of the best remote communicators and identifying best practices. For example, when the best communicators need to clarify the intent of their words while communicating from a distance, they take care to state in sufficient detail why they are saying what they are saying.

The value of this best practice was made apparent during a classroom exercise to teach participants how to communicate effectively using e-mail. Each participant was given one piece of a larger problem, then told to communicate with one another to solve the whole problem. The catch, however, was that they could not speak; rather, they had to use pens and sticky notes to communicate.

One participant, after finishing her portion of the problem, approached her co-worker and scribbled the note, “What’s your problem?” to which the co-worker responded with an offended expression on his face.

“Nothing! What’s your problem!” Obviously, the intent of the original message was not conveyed. If she had written instead, “What’s your problem? I would like to see how it fits with the one I’m working on,” the co-worker would have understood her intent. Explaining why you are saying what you are saying is one of many things that the “best” do when communicating remotely.

Clearly, there are many other challenges and best practices that must be addressed during training to bring about the desired results. In general, a three-part solution is recommended when training people to handle the challenges of remote communication: (1) provide personnel with a clear understanding of the way that face-to-face communication works so that they can (2) identify the specific barriers posed by the remote communication media that they use daily, which sets the stage for them to (3) acquire the appropriate skills that will allow them to overcome those barriers.

This approach not only enables employees to diagnose problems that arise in their daily communications, it also equips them with skills to overcome those problems quickly and effectively.