Manage someone who knows more than you

Ego aside, here's some ideas on how to manage the best out of your team and build on your own knowledge for the greater good of the organisation.

Future of Work

Shock horror – you’ve built a team that know more about business/the industry/your programmes/world trends/etc, etc than you do – you’re the manager, shouldn’t you know everything?

Regardless of my previous experience,  my first few weeks as COO at WNDYR were ones met with a certain amount of self-doubt. I was challenged to lead a high performance team from my remote office in the small country town of Wellington, South Africa (my choice). The people I’d inherited had been hired for their expertise, their spark, their charisma and passion for making things better. They are young, dynamic, scattered around the globe and looking to me for leadership. I felt intimidated by them, their fancy knowledge, broad accents and industry jargon (thank you Google, you saved my back many times in those early days). Weeks later I came to realise that while they, and pretty much every additional team member I’ve hired since, might know more than me in many things, it’s my role to manage that expertise towards reaching specific objectives. It’s almost laughable to think that I’d want it any other way, I mean could you imagine having to know everything, that would be hellishly exhausting.

So ego aside, instead of feeling threatened, here’s a couple of ideas on how to ‘save face’, get the best out of your team and build on your own knowledge for the greater good of the organisation as a result. Not rocket science but more so my pondering mind’s solution to a potentially self-degrading situation … which of course this is not.

  1. Be authentic: Face it, pretending to be something you’re not is cause for disaster. David Brent from The Office is utter proof of that. Without making excuses for your knowledge shortfalls, communicate openly with your team about your limitations and your expertise. Letting them know you’re human by introducing them to your vulnerability will set you up for point number two.
  2. Ask for explanations: While you don’t need to know the intricate detail, you do need to have a high level understanding of how they do their job. If you don’t, how will you delegate effectively? So while the new SSL developer with added expertise in motion graphics or robotics or quantum physics might speak a lingo you’ll never understand, you can glean an understanding of their job parameters so you can support them to even greater greatness.
  3. Support their mission: Every employee has their own agenda; think of it as their mission. Like you, they want to achieve something within a certain time frame and it’s your job to help them do that. Start thinking of your employer/employee relationship as a partnership. You help them reach their mission, they help you reach yours. This mutually beneficial approach means it’s irrelevant how super-fantastic they really are, you’re benefiting from their brain, they’re benefiting from the opportunity to put their grey matter to work.
  4. Ask for (and give) feedback: Anyone arrogant enough to think they know it all, has lots to learn. Your relationship with your team should be one of give and take. Think open, respectful, nurturing even.  Think of it as a 360 approach to leading your talent while they help you lead.
  5. Play to your own strengths: According to Marcus Buckingham, a strength is something that you are both good at and enjoy. For me, this would be my ability to see big picture, to plan, to systemise and bring tasks to closure. These strengths aren’t quite the secret sauce to the businesses latest and greatest invention but without them, my expert team might unravel (even if only a bit).

No matter how much you might think you fall short in some areas, I can pretty much guarantee two things:

  • one, your super-duper colleague/employee feels they fall short in some areas too, and
  • two, chances are you have some brilliant skill (or call it ‘expertise’) you aren’t acknowledging yourself, but should.

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