Can You Lead a Team When You Don't Understand Their Work?


As a manager, particularly as a CEO or general manager, you sometimes are going to be in the position of leading a group whose function you have no experience in, and frankly, don’t have a clue about!

Before I get to the specifics here, I want to say: This is OK.

The road to become a CEO or General Manager is not to spend years — as I call it — “collecting all the cards” to get your own personal experience in every single function that you will ultimately manage. The real goal is to make sure you have the ability to manage those functions effectively, not to DO all those functions personally.

In fact, one of the things that distinguishes the people who attain CEO and general manager roles is that they are willing to step into a job without having ALL the experience.

But at the same time, you do need a way to credibly lead those functions even if you don’t know how to do the work yourself.

Leadership lessons learned 

I learned this lesson at a point in my career where I did not know how to do the work my engineering team did.

Although I have degrees in electronic engineering and computer science, I had not been an engineer personally for many years when I found myself in the role of managing a team of engineering managers whose jobs I did not fully understand.

Here's the good news: From a micromanagement standpoint I was totally safe because I had no idea how to do any of the work they were doing! Because technology moves so fast, whatever technical stuff I did know or had done in the past was out of date.

But then I needed to figure out what else to do! If I wasn’t going to be adding value to the work my team was doing — then what should I be doing?

This is such an important question, and many leaders miss this when they have a role to manage a function that they themselves are personally expert in.

It was wonderful bit of luck in my career because this situation forced me to figure out how to add value as a manager in ways other than adding value to the work itself. If I been an expert, I think it would have been too tempting to jump in, show my expertise, and try to add value to the work, (which was not my job) instead of developing my team and making sure we executed (which was my job).

Working ON the business vs. IN the business

I talk about this dynamic of working at the right level as working ON the business vs. working IN the business.

As managers, we need to realize that our work is not to add value in the detailed content, but to focus your work on the excellent, and always improving functioning of the team. Yes, working IN the business is competing with your team. Working ON the business is making your team more capable and creating an environment where they can thrive.

One of the things that was scary and fascinating to me at this point in my career was that after a year of managing this team whose work I didn’t understand, I was really nervous about my own performance review. I was concerned that my team would not think I was a credible leader, because I did not understand their work at a sufficient depth.

But to the contrary, my boss received feedback from all of my direct reports who said, “Patty is the best manager I’ve ever had.

So what did I do to warrant this feedback?

I found the right course between the two ends of the spectrum, which as a manager, you always want to avoid: Micromanaging and Abdicating.

The temptation to abdicate

Managers (including me) are tempted to abdicate (run away happily!) when either they know nothing about the work, or, the work is so boring and distasteful that they wish they didn’t have to deal with it at all.

If you’ve got someone on your team who actually understands and wants to do this unpleasant work, it’s so very tempting to say, “Thank goodness! YOU take it, I trust you… Please don’t even talk to me about it!”

That’s abdicating, but here is where you have to find the right point between micromanaging and abdicating. There is no danger in micromanaging because you don’t have the knowledge and skills to engage.

The real danger is in abdicating. So if you don’t abdicate, and you don’t jump in and try to add value to the work, how do you add value as a leader?


Keep ownership of the outcome

They way that I have learned to deal with this situation is to focus on outcomes.

When you are not an expert in the work, you can still be a strong leader by keeping ownership of outcomes. Sit down with the manager and have a discussion about concrete, desired outcomes.

Here are some useful outcome-oriented questions:

  1. Over the next year, what do you think are the most important outcomes your team needs to deliver each quarter?
  2. Can you walk me through the rationale for you selected those outcomes? Are these internally or externally driven?
  3. Who, other than our team, cares about these outcomes? Have they agreed?
  4. Are there any other outcomes that you think we might have missed?
  5. How do you propose that I should measure you and your team on those outcomes?
  6. What do you see as the risks you will face in delivering those outcomes? Can I help?

I have found that my direct reports (who were expert in the work that I knew nothing about) could bring to the table excellent ideas and specific measures, and we could have a really concrete discussion about necessary outcomes.

Through this conversation, you show that you care about the work, that you are interested in maximizing outcomes, and that are ready to help mitigate risks. And, you will end up with a solid performance and tracking plan. This is so much better than abdicating!

Use your network

Another useful technique I have discovered is to find people who have a lot more experience than you managing this same function, and to ask them:

  • What is your definition of high performance in this area?
  • What is your definition of a failure?
  • What are the biggest risks you need to manage?
  • What opportunities do you think the best organizations of this type need to be focused on now and moving forward?
  • What do you think the biggest problems on the horizon are for this type or organization?
  • How do you measure your people?
  • What signs should I be looking for to know if things are going in the right or work direction?

Remember your goal is to educate your self on how to manage the function – not how to DO the function.

One caveat: I’ll write about this in a future post -- all aspiring executives can benefit from personally spending some time in a sales role. But you can stop worrying about needing to “collect all the cards” to get experience in everything – it takes too long and you are getting the wrong experience. You need to learn how to manage all the functions, not do all the functions.