Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

From peer to supervisor – Part 10: leading through change

Posted in HR and personnel, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on November 4, 2010

This is my tenth posting in a series on taking that first step into management with preceding installments available in the Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development and also in HR and Personnel. In an earlier posting in this set I at least briefly discussed managing through crisis (see Part 3: Managing Through Your First Crisis) but this posting is not a continuation of that. I am also not going to be discussing change management here – crisis, if you will as an ongoing, steady context as opposed to an acute circumstance to be rapidly corrected out of. I have already at least touched on that set of issues in postings like Change Management in a Rapidly Changing Context and I will have more to add to that in future postings.

This posting is about more evolutionary change than it is about sudden and dramatic, revolutionary change. While this type of change develops in small step by small step increments, the long term results of it can be just as profound as any revolutionary change and these results can be much more institutionally deep-set. And in a real sense this posting is about comfort zones and stepping into situations where you do not necessarily have hands-on experience but where you still need to be able to manage and provide real leadership. And this posting is about learning curves – your learning curves as a manager, not that you know how to step in and hands-on do the job for every aspect of the tasks you manage, but that you understand what is being done to a level where you can manage and lead. And it is about developing a comfort zone in being able to delegate and rely on the judgment of the people you delegate too.

• The higher you go in a table of organization as a manager, the more you will find yourself managing and leading people who have hands-on skills and experience that you do not share. This is a point I have raised several times in this blog and in a variety of contexts. Effectively dealing with the issues and challenges this brings is an important measure as to whether you are ready for a more senior management position.
• But with evolutionary change in what you are responsible for, with new technologies and approaches for managing the same basic tasks and with shifts in organizational goals and priorities, you have to be able to adjust to this type of challenge at any level as a manager.

I find myself thinking of my own experience in this, shifting from open source to proprietary and back to open source, but very different open source for software and back-end structure in online systems – web sites, discussion boards and the like and with new functionalities added. This has called for bring new people into the teams I have managed, and it has involved making the transition from working with people who manage and code for Oracle databases, to people who primarily manage and code for MySQL or other systems, and going from resources like Tcl/Tk to Java and Java beans and so on, with AJAX and other innovations added in. When you work in a rapidly changing technology area, as I have at several points in my career, it can be expected that you work with numerous people with hands-on expertise in areas you have not directly worked in hands-on yourself. But with time this type of change can and does sneak up on every manager – if they are not prepared for it, and even if they manage in “stable, mature” areas.

• Managers need to understand what these new-to-them tools and resources can do, and what they in fact cannot do, cutting through the hype.
• As a manager you need to understand how the pieces of a solution to resolving a team task would fit together and where you may be facing gaps and disconnects if you use them – and what you would have to add to correct for that.
• Cost-effectiveness comes in here, as do considerations as to whether this solution to this task would simply be a one-off solution, or whether it could be reused and applied elsewhere.
• When bringing in new resources and approaches to complete one task could also serve to prototype test in-house a set of options that could be more widely used in that organization, any costs involved should be at least partly amortized across those other uses – and can be if you are ready to make an effective case for this.
• This all starts with learning the core vocabulary and knowing how to talk about use of these tools with the people who use them hands-on.
• This all starts with understanding what this vocabulary means so you can effectively translate from it into standard language – when working with your supervisor and other stakeholders, and in working with the hands-on experts as well. There, the goal is to identify buzz words and to make sure you are not hearing one thing when they are trying to tell you something else, and that they in turn accurately understand you too.

And this is where judgment and comfort zones come in as a higher level, broad brush stroke understanding needed to manage specialists still lacks the fine detail of knowledge and understanding that you strived for when you were that hands-on specialist, and as an essential requirement to your job.

Good managers learn how to develop a different level of control over what tasks are worked on and how, than they needed when they were that specialist hands-on expert. And this becomes pressingly important with passing time as evolutionary change happens.

My next posting in this series is going to discuss employee problems and problem employees.

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