The copier wasn’t working for me as he passed by, so he was going to make my copy himself. When he couldn’t do it either, he walked off.
So, not only did he involve himself – uninvited – in a task he didn’t know how to do, he also demeaned a staff member (me), and himself. Sort of a cartoon illustration of how not to manage.
Actually, operating a complex and unfamiliar piece of equipment wasn’t a specialty of mine. Never had been and still isn’t. The one at hand that morning required simple code information I had no reason to know or use when the proper staff people were around.
That wasn’t the only time I stepped out of my role and didn’t do well in a matter involving that same boss. In the second situation, he threatened to take over the function personally. Utterly inappropriate to his station in the organization.
He didn’t do so, fortunately, but the effect on our relationship was the same as with the copier. I lost respect for both of us. We had jointly created a minor embarrassment for me.
Respect is the currency of productive collaboration, especially in the managing function. When a manager thoughtlessly commits unforced errors, he or she diminishes the respect of those who are to be led. It’s not smart leadership at all.
When you are expert, you earn leadership power by your competence. When you are a manager, you earn it by your understanding and judgment. Those are the components of your specialty. When you mix up the standards, you lose ground and everything becomes more difficult.
In the second example above, I made the same mistake as my boss did. I dabbled in a skill I had not kept up, and produced an outcome that reduced my ability to lead. The people who did that work every day – and were good at it – lost some of their trust in my ability to manage.
Those events were related to an assumption that frequently damages organizations. The assumption is thinking that managers should be expert at the kind of work their staff members do. From that viewpoint, subject matter knowledge is considered central to management.
It is a fallacy. Certainly, subject matter knowledge is important, but it is not what managers are there for. Focusing on it too heavily can cause severe damage to the manager’s ability in his/her primary responsibility.
Management is as much a specialty as any particular line of work – with the key proviso that a good manager can manage well in any line of work. There are things managers must be good at no matter what the organization does.
The person with competency in management will make it his/her business to learn enough about the particular subject matter to make sound decisions in managing the process and the people issues.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a manager cannot, on occasion, provide valuable information and advice on the work itself.
Nor does it suggest an outstanding work-level contributor cannot become a good manager. Some will and some will not. Those who succeed in making such a transition possess or learn the skills of management. That kind of person is capable of either, but it is extremely difficult to continue to do both well. It's usually not necessary, anyway, and gets in the way of excellence.
The fatal error in that direction is assuming that those who know how to do something always know how to lead other people in doing that something. Not so.
When a person moves from the individual contributor role into management, whatever they know about the subject matter becomes less important. In many or most fields, their concentration on management skills and functions causes their work-level skills to decline and fall behind new developments.
As managers, their focus now must be on how well they understand the workings of processes and how well they can lead people in productive joint effort.
The effective manager may or may not know how to run the copier. But that effective manager will ensure that a competent copier operator is on the job when she/he needs one.
SEE ALSO: Managing People Who Resist Process