How to Manage Work Outside Your Area of Expertise

Help! You know little about computers, and you’re suddenly in charge of overseeing the I.T. department. Or you can barely balance your checkbook and now your firm’s finance team is under you. If you’re charged with managing an area of work outside your main expertise, you could feel in over your head – or you could use these four tips to do it effectively.

1. Get aligned about the end product for big, important goals. For instance, you might agree with your IT team that “We need an interactive Web site up and running in time for our big spring product launch, which means launched, tested, and ready to use by March.” This keeps you focused on the end product, and then you can ask questions about the process:  “How will we know whether this is on track? Are there milestones you could set to hit along the way?”

2. Manage by asking good questions rather than suggesting answers. Even without knowing the nitty-gritty of the work well, you can pose basic, useful questions like, “How do you know that X is true?” or “What will you do if Y happens?” or “What do other businesses do about X?”

3. Connect the employee to her “customers.” Your staffer may be doing work that few others understand but where many know whether or not they’re getting what they need. Often you might find yourself in the middle between other departments that tell you they want something, and an “expert” whom you manage. Your job is to bring the two sides together. Make sure your employee is talking to these “customers” and agreeing with them on what they’ll have by when. And make sure that there’s an ongoing channel for communication and feedback, including periodic surveys or other means that let you and your staffer see how these internal customers feel.

4. Judge by what you do know. Often you won’t have a clear idea whether 90% of what the person does is good because you don’t really understand the subject matter. You will, though, understand 10% of it (even if it’s just something like, “Did this person explain what she was doing in a way customers could understand?” or – with IT – whether or not your e-mail and networking are running smoothly). Extrapolate from what you can understand, and assume the 90% you don’t get is similar. If the small pieces you get seem great, it’s reasonable to assure that the rest probably is too – and if the piece you get seems off, it’s likely that the rest may be as well.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • http://www.blurbpoint.com/link-building-services.php Link Building Services

    As for the employee the best thing is that he/she can show his/her talent when asked for by doing the totally different thing that is not of the own field. Here great points shared to done the work effectively if we have ordered to do it and that is not of the own expertise. And this is the only chance to get the promoted and to move ahead at the path of the success. Thanks for sharing this nice article with us.

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  • Prisdru

    So many people are promoted because they are good at what they do–and they turn out to be terrible managers. Managing people is an entirely different skill set than, say, computer programming or product marketing. To say that a manager should know how to do every job her team handles is silly–does that person think that the CEO of Kraft knows how to make cheese?

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Exactly!  Being able to manage well is a whole different skill set, and it’s not practical to be good at that AND highly skilled at the 15 different functions that might be under you!

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    Jac616 Reply:

    So… the burning question is……  drum roll please…  Why do companies still promote the skill set of…  baking really good cookies…  for example and make them in charge of the bakery…  hiring, firing, financial decison when they have not one example or experience in managment.

    Does the company not care?  Does it make them poor decision makers as well?   Do they just hope it will turn out ok? 
    Just throwing it out there….

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I think it’s a lack of understanding or consideration of what it means to manage well, and what skills/traits go into making someone good at it. People tend to think “Jane is good at X, so let’s have her manage a bunch of people doing X,” when in fact the skills can be very different.

    Jac616 Reply:

    Absolutely.  What is so frustrating to people like me is then getting ” managed” by them. ( I am by no means saying I am above all that or smarter…  please don’t take it that way.)   And how does one get “ahead” if you can’t convice the higher ups you have skill sets for motivation and those type of people management skills and can learn the particulars? 
    Again just throwing it out there….

    By the way..  I am a newer reader of your site and I love it !!  Great info and advice and just ” chatting” in general. 

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Thank you so much!  That’s great to hear!

    Jac616 Reply:

    So… the burning question is……  drum roll please…  Why do companies still promote the skill set of…  baking really good cookies…  for example and make them in charge of the bakery…  hiring, firing, financial decison when they have not one example or experience in managment.

    Does the company not care?  Does it make them poor decision makers as well?   Do they just hope it will turn out ok? 
    Just throwing it out there….

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  • Name1

    A big factor is the manager’s attitude about the details where they’re not an expert. Someone with a constructive “explain the key points to me so I can keep it moving” is worth their weight in gold. But far too many managers have a “don’t bother me with the details, that’s your job” perspective that shuts down communication. As a worker bee, I’m grateful and impressed when a senior level person takes the time to dig in to my work a little so they can understand where I’m coming from. They don’t have to know the nitty gritty, but I’m willing to work harder and go above & beyond for someone who respects what happens in the trenches.

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I agree — there’s something about being able to demonstrate that you get people’s worlds that really makes a difference in the relationship. (But that of course doesn’t require being able to DO their work — just getting the challenges and realities that they’re dealing with.)

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    guest Reply:

    I agree that it’s great when a senior level person takes the time to learn and try to understand more of the work especially if they don’t know the day to day basics on how to do the work themselves. I had a horrible manager (worst ever in my 10+ jobs in my lifetime) who was so incompetent that she not only did not know how to do the work I did, but did not even want me to train her on how to do it! After literally suffering for over 2 years I finally decided to resign and it felt really good to leave her hanging and crying since its her fault she didn’t take the opportunity to learn everything I did during the long period of time I was there. In addition, she was an ungrateful, evil, incompetent, controlling, weak, brown nosing, sad excuse for a human being. She also has the worst track record ever with having lost 3 employees in less than 1 year for the same position!

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  • Anonymous

    Fantastic, timely post.  I feel situations like this are also a good opportunity for managers to help their reports to understand the big picture of how their work impacts the organization’s bottom line. 

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  • Anonymous

    Fantastic, timely post.  I feel situations like this are also a good
    opportunity for managers to help their reports to understand the big
    picture of how their work impacts the organization’s bottom line.

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Thanks!  And totally agree about making sure people understand and appreciate where their work fits into the big picture!

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  • KL

    I have had many managers who reached that level by being experts at doing X. But they never considered the “people management” part of their job very important, just sort of a necessary annoyance. Those people were great technical experts/advisers, but working under them was awful. Because they had no interest in managing, much less mentoring, it was very difficult to learn anything from their expertise. 

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Ugh, yes, this is such a common problem. There aren’t a lot of great mentors around as far as management goes!

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  • Honeyseibert3

    Are there legal safeguards to prohibit employers for requiring individuals to engage in activities outside of their area of professional expertise which are not part of their job description (EWPs)……for example, a non medical person being required to oversee the dispersing of medication?

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Only in fields that are regulated, like medicine. But in other fields (which is most), employers can require you to do anything they want to require you to do.

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