Managers Can't Know Everything: 6 Tips for Managing Outside Your Areas of Expertise

Managers, especially top executives, must realize that they can't be experts in everything. The "manager as expert" might work for an engineer who becomes a manager of an engineering team, but no middle market CEO is an expert in all aspects of the business. You must not only learn how to wear many hats but accept that you will be managing people who have more expertise in a particular area than you do. And while being a "manager as expert" might work best in an ideal world (of course, no middle market company is an ideal world), it mostly won't be an option for managers in the real world. How can a manager who knows less than his or her reports manage them properly?

Managers are shown communicating with their teams

It can be done, and done well, but it requires a careful process. Here are six things you should be doing or taking note of whenever you manage people outside your areas of expertise:

  1. Bluffing has never worked and never will. For example, if you aren't web-savvy and manage a web designer by using buzzwords and web-design language, the web designer will likely call your bluff, possibly in public, embarrassing you and damaging the ongoing work relationship. A good manager is one who openly admits their lack of technical expertise and instead explains the business goals for the website. You need to have an open discussion with the web designer (filled with lots of questions from management and a lot of listening to the expert's viewpoints) about the available technical options to reach the business goals.
  2. Measuring progress, in terms of having milestones and checkpoints, is key for both the manager and managed. Focus your relationship around agreed-upon, measurable objectives. You're the expert in monitoring and measuring progress. Make sure the expert understands that they can gain more flexibility and room to maneuver as long as measurable progress is being made.
  3. Learn how to communicate your lack of expertise. You can gain credibility and disarm even the most unapproachable expert by saying things such as, "I'm still learning here, so could you help me understand why X works here better than Y?" Stop needing to be the smartest person in the room; others will appreciate your humility. You might remember the beloved 1970s television detective Columbo, played by actor Peter Falk, whose entire schtick was playing dumb in order to discover the truth. The raincoat-clad detective solved all his cases by asking basic, self-effacing questions: "Maybe I'm stupid, but X doesn't make sense to me" and "You know, I'm not the smartest guy around here, but X seems a bit confusing. Could you help me understand it?" Your reports will respect your humble questions — more than the criminals Columbo put behind bars.
  4. Create a supportive, collaborative work climate for the experts you manage. Asking your experts what you can do to help (and then doing it) is key in gaining credibility. If they need more resources, then get those resources. If they need more time to get something done and somebody is breathing down their necks about a deadline, then do the "blocking and tackling" work that every great manager does to protect and support the team. If you've got their back, they'll have your back. Understand where and when you can help, and then help.
  5. Share credit for success with everybody, but take responsibility (where possible) for failures. If you are following these suggested steps, your experts will see that you are contributing value toward their own success. If you share and deflect the credit onto them, you will gain their trust and loyalty. If you take the blame for problems, even when the team fully understands their own failings, you will gain even more respect and loyalty. It's not easy to check your ego at the door, especially when it comes to taking blame, but every great manager does it and has reaped the rewards.
  6. Hire people who share your values. Find people who are comfortable with an open, transparent communication process and who work collaboratively across functions with colleagues and leadership. You don't want silos of expertise in your middle market company, and you can't afford to have experts who lack the patience or competence to patiently explain what they do and engage in a discussion about why it's important for the entire business. Foster a climate of openness and collaboration that aligns everyone's function around a few overarching, strategic goals. Hire, retain, and train people to adapt to this kind of culture.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+.


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