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How to manage teams when you’re not the subject matter expert

You don’t need to be a subject matter expert to be a good manager. But you need to know how to empower your people to do their best work

Source | www.fastcompany.com | KASH MATHUR

Managers often have backgrounds in the disciplines of their reports: financial analysts become financial managers, software engineers become product managers. But my first job out of college was as a startup founder. That meant I had to start managing people immediately—without any direct experience in the trenches or subject matter expertise.

Unsurprisingly, I made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t know the ins and outs of my employees’ day-to-day tasks, so the trust between us started off rocky. But I learned that I could add value by creating an environment that let the team do its best work. When I took the time to understand the team’s context and gain its trust, the result was a dynamic, productive, problem-solving team.

Since then, I’ve taught myself to be proactive about managing a team whose domain isn’t in my area of expertise. Here’s what I do to learn and build trust when I’m not an expert:

1. ADMIT YOU’RE STILL LEARNING

When I first became a product manager, I was supervising an engineering team. It became clear pretty quickly that I didn’t understand the complexities and constraints team members were facing. And because no one was going to teach me how to do my job correctly (and they shouldn’t have to), I realized I had to be proactive in learning about the challenges.

I was upfront with a few folks on the team, and they guided me toward books, events, and talks outside the organization that would help me better understand their world. I even took a couple of coding classes. I wasn’t an expert—and I didn’t pretend to be—but I worked to learn the team’s lingo, which enabled me to ask better questions and gain the team’s trust. Ultimately, I realized I’d learned enough about the team members’ day-to-day challenges and problems to have productive conversations that guided them toward progress.

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