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.