how do I manage work outside my comfort area?

A reader writes:

I’ve been put in charge of overseeing four different departments, including two in which I have no expertise at all (IT and communications). Luckily, those departments both have competent managers (who each report up to me), but what should my role look like in overseeing them and how to do I manage them when they know their work so much better than I do?

This is a common position for COOs, CEOs, and anyone else who manages other managers to be in: If you climb high enough in an organization’s hierarchy, at some point you’re going to be overseeing people and areas where you’re no longer the expert – and where you might not have much understanding of the day-to-day work they do at all.

There are four keys to doing this well and not feeling in over your head.

1. Get aligned about what success for the work will look like. Setting goals with your team that clearly describe what success would look like is one of the most important things you can do as a manager, and it’s especially true in cases like yours, when you’re only equipped to judge performance by the final outcome and not about what the work might look like along the way. For instance, you might agree with your IT team that “We need an interactive mobile app up and running in time for our fall product launch, which means tested and ready to use by mid-August.” This will keep you focused on the outcome or end product – the piece that you do understand. From there, you can ask questions about the process, like “What could go wrong and how will you plan for that?” “How will we know whether this is on track?” and “What milestones can you set up to hit along the way?”

2. Ask good questions. You might feel that as a manager, you should have all the answers – but as you manage at increasingly higher levels, you’re going to be posing questions more than providing answers. That means that you need to ask good questions, like, “How do you know that __ is true?” or “What will you do if __ happens?” or “What do other companies do about the risk of __?” And don’t be shy about saying, “Help me understand why…”

3. Pay attention to outcomes. Remember that what you need to understand isn’t howthe work gets done, but whether your organization is getting the outcomes it needs. For instance, if you’re a COO, you probably don’t need to know the minutiae of your client database works, but you should know if it’s providing yours salespeople with the functionality they need. Stay focused on whether you’re getting the results you need (and which you and your team members got aligned about in step #1).

4. Judge by what you do know. Even if you’re not an expert in the subject matter of a team you oversee, you’re going to understand pieces of what they do, even if it’s just something like “Did this person explain what she was doing in a way customers could understand?” or, in the case of IT, whether or not your networking and email are running smoothly. It’s reasonable to extrapolate from the pieces you do see and understand and assume that the pattern is similar elsewhere. If the pieces you understand seem off, it’s likely that there are deeper problems as well.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Victoria Nonprofit*

    Love this. These are my favorite kind of posts – really articulating how to do some tough things at work. Thanks!

    1. Victoria Nonprofit*

      And I should say: This is not something I deal with at work. But it’s interesting to think about how I could handle things like this if it ever becomes a part of my work life.

      1. jcsgo*

        This is exactly why I love reading AAM too. I think it helps me be a better employee as well as see where I may want to grow in the future.

  2. Jamie*

    The first thing you do is give a raise to your IT. That’s the rule – throw money at them…as much as you can spare. Even if you have to cut other employee’s salaries to do it, they won’t mind. And cupcakes. (Don’t throw the cupcakes, though – too messy. Leave then on their desk.)

    Alison’s advice was excellent – ask. I do this with production managers all the time, I have no idea how they make stuff…so I ask what I need to know in order to evaluate and have their back.

    The worst thing you can do is just chalk up someone’s job to technical magic and not even try to understand. I’m not saying you need to be able to troubleshoot a bottleneck, but you can learn enough as a layperson to be able to offer sincere positive feedback now and then, because telling me I’m awesome because you think I have a magic wand is funny but not as professionally satisfying.

    And don’t call the head of IT a guru – we hate that and we have no interest whatsoever in guiding you spiritually.

    Here’s a link to one of my favorite articles ever in the whole world about managing IT – I can’t tell you how many times I re-read this when I’m having a crappy day just because I feel really alone sometimes it’s like a weirdly fictional and invisible hug from someone who gets it.

    1. Chinook*

      Jamie, I read that article and have now come to the conclusion that I have an inner IT pro screaming to get out (and this is why I always seem to get along with the IT department, even when I am the one sometimes causing the biggest headaches/workload).

      I especially love the writer’s line “Good IT pros are not anti-bureaucracy, as many observers think. They are anti-stupidity. The difference is both subjective and subtle.” This hear sums up my entire career and every workplace issue I have ever had.

      So, now I just need to get the training and find an IT job and then life will be good.

      1. the gold digger*

        Yep. I read this and thought, “Wow! I am an IT person at heart!” Which might explain why I don’t fit in my current culture, which is all about bowing to the will of the arbitrary and capricious CEO.

        IT people – my people. That’s why I make them brownies.

        1. Mints*

          Add me to this list, too. The logic section had me nodding my head

          My inner Spock enjoyed this

    2. ThursdaysGeek*

      Interesting article, and I’ll bookmark it and read it again.

      One point it makes, which is applicable to this entry, is that of respect (in both directions). And I think that transcends just IT, and thus the article should be read by any manager, not just one leading IT people.

      And one place where the article might fall down, is implying all IT people to be logical, smart, and competent. I’ve worked with many, and that is a stereotype we like, but there are certainly levels, and not all quite reach as high. Perhaps that is why I’ve questioned Alison’s stance of wanting to get references from managers over co-workers. Because I’ve worked with programmers, read their code, and I know that they are faking the logical, smart, and competent, in a way their manager can’t see. Their code works, but it’s so brittle and kludgy that it makes me look bad when I have to work on later, because I have to fix so much and take so much time. I know I’m only a bit better than average, and average is pretty dismal. There are a few IT superstars, but there are a lot more who aren’t. From the outside, we look smart, but to each other, if we’re honest, we look a lot like everyone else.

      1. Jamie*

        Yes, he was speaking in generalities of good IT people – there are outliers in every profession.

        But he does make the point that a performance review is irrelevant without a 360 for the very reason you mentioned – managers aren’t in the position to see everything. Now, that’s a blanket statement and I don’t agree with it in every instance – but I agree with the overarching point.

        I do think programming is different from some other areas of IT in that you can probably more easily snow a manager. Where for a system/network admin or DBA – the manager will be privy to a lot of complaints if this job isn’t being done well – because ineptness on those things compromise how everyone else can do their jobs. But yes, programming is a different story since by the time you roll those things out they have (or should have) been looked at my multiple sets of eyes and an official testing process.

        1. ChiTown Lurker*

          Actually, in an environment with 360 reviews or even a decent QA department, you can easily spot bad programmers. Programmers who consistently deliver code to QA with more errors than other developers, ignore coding standards and who are always the bottleneck on projects are very visible. However, in the new agile environment where we are forced to “swarm” to deal with issues, this can be hidden from customer. Believe me, we see the bad programmers.

          Actually, at my former company, the customers usually knew as well as small changes don’t go through QA. We frequently had customers request specific developers and, when possible, reject other developers from working on their projects. The only person who was unaware was the Developmemt Manager. He had never written a single program (he bragged about it) and based all reviews on delivery dates. Deliver on time, you are good. Deliver early, you are great. Quality was not part of the equation.

    3. ChiTown Lurker*

      This is the best article I have read about IT in a long time. I believe that it accurately sums up many, if not most, of my IT working environments. I am making sending the link to all my coworkers. Thanks.

    4. A Non*

      Good heavens, that article is pure wisdom. My organization has a new CEO starting next week – I’m very tempted to send it to them and beg them to read and apply it.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        We’ll be getting a new CIO before the year is over (current one is retiring) and I was wondering if I could send the article to someone higher up. I so want a good replacement. Since the current one is good, it’s more likely the replacement will be good. I’d be happy with a good CIO, even if they aren’t cupcake good.

        But then, I’ve also wondered the best way to introduce my immediate management to AAM.

    5. Golden Yeti*

      “The worst thing you can do is just chalk up someone’s job to technical magic and not even try to understand.”

      So much this. I’m trying to not pull my hair out right now because I just realized that soon, my managers are going to make me responsible for 10 websites–yes, literally 10, spread across multiple websites and multiple languages. The problem? I’m an admin, and this is expected on top of my regular duties. Will I get any extra pay for this? Probably not. However, because I am the most technically inclined person in the office, management assumes that because I make it look easy, it’s okay to dump on more–because I am the office “tech guru” and “if anyone can do it, I can.”

      I also sympathize with our actual tech support…with some of the things I’ve been requested to ask them, I’d be surprised if they still have hair…

    6. Turtle Candle*

      Much agreement re: not just chalking it up to “magic.” Not only does it undercut compliments, in my experience it leads to dismissing real issues. If you want something and I say that it would have a major tradeoff in terms of performance, or increase the load such that we’d have to put a lot more into resources than we have budgeted (and so you’re going to have to either ask for something else or reconsider the budget), or whatever, it’s maddening to hear, “Oh, just work your magic on it!”

    7. KarmaKicks*

      Jamie, I sent this article to my husband, he’s in IT and constantly in a stew about their management. It’s currently making the rounds at his workplace. Thanks for passing this on!

    8. Frances*

      Hee hee, my boss (who is exactly this kind of manager, and a good one) just wandered by distributing cupcakes not five minutes after I read this comment.

  3. Jamie*

    Oh and one more thing – as much as humanly possible when you’re hiring for positions you may never fully understand professional ethics and personal integrity are at the top of the list of what you’re looking for.

    Yes, you can get outside consultants to vet the processes every so often, but you have to trust them to not have an agenda to get your business. If I can come to you and tell you something will be impossible, take 6 months, or cost 30k you need to have faith in my ethics. You can tell because they will offer full transparency.

    Here’s an example – let’s say you know nothing about servers and I’m your IT and need to replace the server which runs your ERP.

    It’s 25K – but you can see from the Dell website you can get a server for $400. I will try to hide how adorable I find your question, smile, and give you a fully speced CBA for why we need the specific RAID, how the processing requirements are different from a regular file share server, what are data requirements are and how I calculated the space needed for over the next X years, why I selected a particular OS, and how many CALS we need.

    This may make no sense to you, but you can use it to check my reasoning with an independent source. Or look at the specs for the ERP requirements against your $400 server and against mine.

    I’m fully transparent – doesn’t mean anyone cares or is interested – but if they are I’ll show them anything they want to know. You want their references to confirm that not only are the skills there, but there was no shadiness in how they operate.

    1. A Non*

      This is so very true. I’m going through exactly this right now with one of our remote offices – sure, you can find cheaper computers than the ones we provide. No, you don’t really want to do that, because they will cost you more time and money down the road because cheaper != better.

  4. AnotherAlison*

    Or, you could completely ignore the people whose work you don’t understand, except for the four times a year you need something from them. (I’m looking at you, boss-man.) Alison’s recommendations are probably better.

    1. Jamie*

      I just actually freaking choked on what I was drinking and made a giant mess….spontaneous laughter is not good for my image or my sweater. Geeze.

      But yes – THIS – and to add to it, by all means assume because things are going well and you have great uptime and excellent network performance that you don’t really need an IT department. Things pretty much run themselves and you can outsource it for less money, when you need someone to do something on occasion.

      I mean – what to do they do anyway? Sit behind a bank of monitors typing and looking at a bunch of screens…why do we pay them so much money when that’s all they do.

      That’s a good plan…until you find out that all their behind the scenes maintenance did have a correlation to the network performance and uptime. And now you’re paying WAY more to the outsourced person than you did in-house…and he’s not here so the response time is a low slower…

      So break down and hire a new IT, who now is coming into a hot mess of unmaintained clients and servers who has to kill themselves to get you back to where you were…and you’ll pay for that. That old salary of the comfortable person running a smooth network looks good now.

      And that former IT of yours…probably made a big pay jump going to another company who did the same thing and is making more to clean up their mess.

      In all seriousness, treat your IT the way you would your mechanic or your dentist. You’ll never know what they’re talking about in full, so get someone great that you trust and never let them go.

      1. A Non*

        I heard a truism the other day, that if everything’s working correctly obviously the IT people aren’t doing anything because there’s nothing to be done. But if things aren’t working, obviously the IT people aren’t doing anything because otherwise it would be fixed.

        /IT rant

  5. A Jane*

    One of the best pieces of advice I got from an executive is that you have to be comfortable with some level of uncertainty. You can plan your best to reduce risk, but there’s always some chaos factor to account for.

  6. snarkalupagus*

    My MBA program had a core course in IT management that was specifically structured toward folks without an IT background who might become a CIO or fill a similar C-level role with that type of oversight. The book we used as a “textbook” wasn’t a textbook at all, but rather a fictional synthesis of some what-ifs that the syllabus then examined.

    Overall, a lot of what was included was germane not only to that type of situation, but more generally to executives who manage areas that aren’t within their core of expertise. Some of it is pretty hammy but there are definite nuggets of goodness, most of which are captured in Alison’s original response. I’d recommend it to anyone being asked to step into a role like that in the original question.

    1. Jamie*

      I totally understand a C-level role without IT experience overseeing the department – COO, CEO, and often (for some reason I don’t fully get) CFOs – but I don’t know how anyone could be a CIO without IT experience.

      If I were in the market for a new job I’d happily report to C-level execs who don’t know the difference between a reboot and turning their monitor off and on – but I’d never work for a CIO without technical experience. Even if the job were perfect in every other way, it tells me they have no idea what they are doing when it comes to IT.

      My official title is CIO and if I wasn’t an IT first it would be as bogus as calling me a doctor or a hairdresser.

      1. BRR*

        I find that a very interesting point. My dad is a CIO and doesn’t have any IT background. I’m not sure his entire employment history but I know he started managing IT back in the early 80s without first doing other aspects of IT. I’m now wondering if he’s the boss people write to AAM about.

        1. Chinook*

          I think it is different being in charge of an IT department since the 80’s with no prior IT experience because, frankly, there wasn’t much IT experience to have (and definitely not the amount you could get now) vs. getting a CIO title now with no background. If your dad has been able to grow the department, then he obviously knew enough to get the people he needed and trust them to do their work.

          1. Jamie*

            In the way we think of IT now you may be right. But my dad started in IT back in 1959 (although I doubt it was called that) being plucked from finance to troubleshoot the mainframe and write code because he had a knack for that kind of thing. I have older siblings born in the early 60’s and their birth certificates list him as a systems analyst.

            My mom said that back in those days her family had no idea what he did for a living – working with and writing code for computers was such a foreign concept to most people.

            I remember him saying in the early days it was 100% trial and error because there were only a handful of them and they were one of the very first companies to go computerized – so in retrospect they were kind of pioneers.

            Don’t know where I was going with that, but that yes, I do think for the most part it was different back them because the pool of people with IT experience (like my dad and his colleagues) was very small in comparison to today.

            And BRR – I’m sure your dad got quite a bit of IT background over his career, even if he started a little green as was necessary in a lot of places back then. I was referring to more Jen managing Roy and Moss in the IT Crowd – to use a fictional example. No IT person is an expert in everything, I myself am far stronger in DBA than networking (although I know what I need to in networking) so my network consultant knows way more than I do – which is what makes him so valuable. But I know enough to work with him, I know enough to understand what he’s doing and to gauge time and expense.

  7. Oh Happy Day...*

    From my perspective (I am responsible for communications -includes web development and graphic design- within my company’s IT dept.) it is best to come in with a realistic approach.
    1. Acknowledge the current employees skillset.

    2. Be honest with your skillset/competency. There is nothing worse than having a new manager come in and pretend to be at the same competency level only to find out during a project that they have no idea what is going on.

    3. Stay in the loop on what your team is working on. You may not pick up their tangible skillset but at least you’ll know their work from different perspectives. I recently picked up a new responsibility and everything is Greek to me. Things are starting to make sense because I am engaged enough to put the pieces together.

    4. If you respect the new team, be honest with them and come alongside, it’ll be much easier for you to get some valuable time with them 1×1 to ask questions and learn their work. Anyone can show you a high-level overview but the ones that have respect for you will go the extra mile and show you the details.

  8. Cat Herder*

    Listen to your people.

    It’s human nature to try to infests something new by drawing parallels to something you already understand. Most of the time that’s a helpful thing. But people in positions of authority often get into trouble by trusting that reasoning-by-analogy even when it conflicts with what experts in the field are telling them.

    Presumably you have subordinates who know the field and can be trusted. (If not, fix that first!) When they say things that clash with your experience, listen and try to see where the disagreement comes from. Don’t act like you think your experience managing a team that writes teapot-making machine software makes you a better judge of accounting issues than your accountant.

  9. Sharm*

    This is really great, Alison. Thank you.

    As someone lower on the totem pole now, I want to know specifically how I can develop the skill to ask questions. I’ve noticed most all of the top execs/management in the companies I’ve worked at are so good at asking questions. It always feels like they’re SME, even though they aren’t. Being in the day-to-day, I feel like my questions are localized to the task at hand, and never at the depth or complexity of senior staff. How do I train my brain to think that way?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t have a quick answer to this, but I think that develops over time through being exposed to larger and larger pieces of the picture, and having to take all of it into account … so over time as you move up, it starts to naturally happen (assuming you’re good at what you do) because of the issues and perspectives your role exposes you to and the types of challenges you have to grapple with.

      As for how you could make it happen faster than just letting that process take its course … paying a ton of attention to what’s happening around you but not in your direct area, and what they care about, and what others ask about is a start!

  10. TheSnarkyB*

    Sorry if this is redundant – I know I’ve posted it before but Alison, could you please label the outside website stories somewhere at the top? It feels a bit weird to read the whole question and be pulled into the curiosity but then have to go somewhere else for the answer. I’m not sure if this is the intention, but it doesn’t feel in keeping with the straightforwardness of the rest of the site. It’s not quite clickbaity but it’s something… that I don’t have a better word for I guess.
    Additionally, I tend to preload AAM pages for my commute or subway rides (where I don’t have service) and it’s very frustrating that on mobile, I can’t see that there’s no answer until I’m already underground and usually engrossed.
    Don’t mean to cause a big stink, but I would appreciate a heads up (like the logo on the QuickBase ones or the preface on the advertisements).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ll think about whether there’s a way to do it, but I also want to be straightforward about the fact that it’s not something I see as a big problem (and I haven’t heard other complaints about it).

      I actually do hope people will click through to the other stories; that’s part of how I keep this site free to readers. I’m not going to fault anyone who doesn’t want to do that, but I also don’t want to make those articles a separate, stand-apart thing.

      1. JC*

        I’m happy to click through to the other sites when I’m able and often do, but I have the same fundamental problem as TheSnarkyB: I do much of my blog reading on an RSS reader while commuting on a subway, and thus can only read things that preloaded when I was above ground and had signal. I wouldn’t want you to do anything that kept others from clicking through and supporting you, but it also bums me out when I realize I can’t read the response when I get to the end of the question. Guess I just wanted to note that others may have the same issue even if they don’t think it’s annoying enough to complain.

      2. TheSnarkyB*

        I totally appreciate that you want people to click through (I kind of assumed that was the point), but it’s an issue of knowing what you’re getting into in advance. Just like I’m happy to read the sponsored posts or click through to the Intuit QuickBase posts when I’m interested in them, but this is the only format that has a teaser without a warning that the content isn’t all in one place, so that’s where I take issue with it, especially if I can’t load the article where I am, it just leads to me not going back to it later in the day and also being frustrated about not having any reading content for that trip or whatever.
        (And to BRR’s point – yes, I could, but I wouldn’t be happy about doing that for every single post I preload when I’m rushing out the door in the morning and 90% of them are full length posts.)

        1. TheSnarkyB*

          Of course, I respect however you handle it regardless but I just thought it would be useful to make complaints known, especially since you’ve been so responsive in the past & it seems like the site is constantly improving & incorporating feedback. :)

      3. AB Normal*

        It looks like there’s an easy solution that would satisfy everybody: if in the title of the post you somehow indicated that the answer needs a clickthrough, people downloading the pages to read on the go when there’s no connection (like myself and others here) could then know that they should look for a link inside the post and click through, so the actual article is downloaded in full. What makes it hard is that you actually have to read the post in order to know whether there is a need to open a separate page (which defeats the purpose of downloading the posts to read during a commute).

        1. TheSnarkyB*

          Absolutely! This would be perfect. It’s the “sneaky” element of it that I’m sure wasn’t intended that I have a problem with.
          I’m even ok with it being something that’s only clear to usual readers. Like if you’re trying really hard to direct traffic to the partner sites, I’d get it if you don’t want to write DW: in the title. But just something that would make it clear, at least to every day readers.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            It’s absolutely not intended to be sneaky. It’s a pretty common web practice.

            Anyway, I hear you and if an easy solution ever presents itself, I’ll see what I can do. But I want to be candid with you that right now it’s not something I have plans to change.

  11. Not So NewReader*

    Would love a sequel to this one. “Are you managing by outcomes alone?”
    So you are managing a group of people and you have no clue what they are doing. How do you protect yourself from becoming one of “those bosses” that seems to be only interested in outcomes? We all know how many difficulties that causes. Would love to see a self-check.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d actually love to see people manage by outcomes nearly exclusively. That’s what we’re all there for, after all! But I suspect I’m misinterpreting your question in some way?

      1. Jamie*

        I could be misinterpreting it, but I think you are both using the term outcomes differently.

        I have worked for outcome based bosses who had zero interest as to who on the team did what as long as the outcome was correct and on time. So it was somewhat like the group projects in school where the kid(s) who cared most about the grades did the lions shared of the work but everyone got the A – even those who were not only not helpful, but actual impediments to the end result.

        I think you’re using outcome the way I would agree all jobs should be outcome based – this position needs to accomplish XYZ and if that is being done and done very well you’re not bogged down on whether they were 5 minutes late or if they went on a roll and worked from home on the weekend (as long as the job doesn’t require an one to be in the seat like reception in which case being there on time and reliably is part of the outcome.)

        But I can’t imagine that if I worked for you and you were pleased with the project end result you wouldn’t want to know that there were issues with delivery from some team members, or that Jane’s incompetence never made it into the final result because Wakeen redid it on his own time. Some outcome based people don’t even know who their high performers are and I can’t imagine that’s something you’d be able to miss even if you wanted to.

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