How Do I Manage Work I Have No Expertise In?

managing outside of your comfort zone

I’ve been put in charge of overseeing four different departments, including two in which I have no expertise at all (IT and communications). Luckily, those departments both have competent managers (who each report up to me), but what should my role look like in overseeing them and how to do I manage them when they know their work so much better than I do?

This is a common position for COOs, CEOs, and anyone else who manages other managers to be in: If you climb high enough in an organization’s hierarchy, at some point you’re going to be overseeing people and areas where you’re no longer the expert — and where you might not have much understanding of the day-to-day work they do at all.

There are four keys to managing this well and not feeling like you’re in over your head:

  1. Get aligned about what success for the work will look like. Setting goals with your team that clearly describe what success would look like is one of the most important things you can do as a manager, and it’s especially true in cases like yours, when you’re only equipped to judge performance by the final outcome and not what the work might look like along the way. For instance, you might agree with your IT team that you need an interactive mobile app up and running in time for a fall product launch, which means tested and ready to use by mid-August. This will keep you focused on the outcome or end product — the piece that you do understand. From there, you can ask questions about the process, like “What could go wrong and how will you plan for that?” “How will we know whether this is on track?” and “What milestones can you set up to hit along the way?”
  2. Ask good questions. You might feel that as a manager, you should have all the answers; but as you manage at increasingly higher levels, you’re going to be posing questions more than providing answers. That means that you need to ask good questions, like, “How do you know that __ is true?” or “What will you do if __ happens?” or “What do other companies do about the risk of __?” And don’t be shy about saying, “Help me understand why…” 
  3. Pay attention to outcomes. Remember that what you need to understand isn’t how the work gets done, but whether your organization is getting the outcomes it needs. For instance, if you’re a COO, you probably don’t need to know the minutiae of how your client database works, but you should know if it’s providing yours salespeople with the functionality they need. Stay focused on whether you’re getting the results you need (those which you and your team members agreed upon in step #1).
  4. Judge by what you do know. Even if you’re not an expert in the subject matter of a team you oversee, you’re going to understand pieces of what they do, even if it’s just something like “Did this person explain what she was doing in a way customers could understand?” or, in the case of IT, whether or not your networking and email are running smoothly. It’s reasonable to extrapolate from the pieces you do see and understand and assume that the pattern is similar elsewhere. If the pieces you understand seem off, it’s likely that there are deeper problems as well. 

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.

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