Thursday, April 08, 2010

Managers Getting Value from Their Team

One of the blogs I read is by Scott Berkun. He writes about management and public speaking.  One of his latest entries is entitled “Should managers know how to code?”.  He basically puts managers into 2 categories.  A. Managers of software development teams and B. project managers and team leads.  Then he makes a series of points that a manager in any role should strive towards.  I’ll let you read the blog to get all the details.

What I would like to comment on is the statement he makes in one of his points. Scott says that “Managers don’t need to be experts – they need to be great at getting functional value out of experts of any kind.” I believe this to be a pivotal statement regarding a manager’s success or failure.

A few years back, when I was a Programmer Analyst with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, I had the opportunity to listen to Sir Richard Branson speak about being successful.   One of the most important things I learned that day, and something that has stuck with me throughout my career, is that in order to to be successful one has to surround themselves with people who know what they are doing and let them do it. In my eyes, this is exactly what Scott is talking about.  But Scott goes a little further.

Letting the experts do what they are experts at is only part of the equation.  Another part of the equation is the latter part of Scott’s statement. If the experts you surround yourself with do not add value to your particular function in an organization then their worth as an expert is diminished. Being able to direct an expert’s knowledge and know-how to a particular function to add value is key to the success of any manager.

I have had the privilege of having managers throughout my career in software engineering who are exceptional at this key concept.  I have also had a couple who were very bad at it and it showed. Aside from these two specific cases, one from early in my career and one from later in my career, the managers I have had have allowed me to do what it was I did best and helped me focus on adding value to the company while I was doing it.

The first manager I had that demonstrated this ability, after I really understood its value and looked for it, was Fritz Kade at MPTN.  He demonstrated the innate ability to get his group to, not only accomplish the task at hand, but also to learn from it and apply that learning to future tasks. He helped me through some very troubling times early in my career and I thank him for that because I would not be who I am today without his learning opportunities.  Though this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, he also will forever be memorialized with his statement to me at dinner one night with my wife: “The more you eat, the more you can eat.” Although, he only weighed about 150 lbs.

One of my managers that did not demonstrate this ability very well, (not to be named to protect the guilty) fortunately for me, was not my direct manager but my manager’s manager.  He was guilty of one of the most egregious managerial mistakes I have seen: Drive-by Management.  We spent 45 minutes in a working meeting, that he should have attended, working through the details of a pretty complex insurance policy task.  He arrived at the end of the meeting and stated “this is the way we are going to do it.”  He had no input from his staff and offered no chance to poke holes in “his way.”  We all left that meeting drained.  We wasted our time and effort and worse yet, he lost the respect of almost everyone in that room. This is a classic case of mis-managing your team and your project.

So as a manager I strive to see the value my staff can give in any given situation and help them focus on that value. I believe I have one of the most talented IT staff available so I consider myself lucky.  And they are helping me be successful and hopefully I am returning the favor. Of course, if you have a staff that is not as good as you would like them to be, then you have to have a different ability.  That is the ability get the most out of what you’ve got.  But that is another story and a story of mine that I might tell you about in a later post.

till next time…