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Manager and Leadership Training, Anyone?

Posted by iammarchhare on 17 August 2009

Last time, I blogged about “I Am Not a Specialist, I Am a Manager” and got some really good feedback.  I want to dig into it a little more and bring it down to a more personal level.

Indeed, why make such a fuss about it at all?  Because, IMO, companies do a poor job of preparing people for management and leadership positions.  Most seem to have the attitude that a good programmer naturally moves up and becomes either a good development manager or a good software architect.  They expect to move the person into these new roles many times without consideration of the additional skills needed.

For example, how many companies really push the people skills necessary for these positions?  Even the architect needs some skills at leadership and influencing, or they just become an overpaid developer.

How many companies really groom their people to move up any more?  Do they introduce junior team members to members in other parts of the organization?  Do they have lunches with managers and executives?  It has been my experience that building cohesion between various people in different departments and different roles tears down the “us vs. them” mentality that predominates in so many corporate cultures.

You know, it doesn’t have to be one of those silly “team building” deals, either.  It could be that a manager steps back on a non-critical portion of a project and lets a senior developer run that portion of the show.  It could be as simple as a sack lunch in a conference room.

If companies won’t look out for themselves, then the least that individuals can do is to take it upon themselves to find a business mentor.  Find someone who will take an interest in you.  Find someone who has been in your shoes.  Find someone who will introduce you to other parts of the organization.  Find someone you whose judgment you respect.  Find someone who is respected by those over, under and at the same level as they are.

One important note is to find someone who is accessible.  This has to be someone who you can contact when the chips are down.

The details will vary, but general areas that technical people really should be looking at are:

Communication: One of the most talked and written about areas and also one of the most neglected is communication.  Writing is obvious for a technical person, but oral communication is also a must.  You need to get used to communicating with a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds in formal and informal settings.  You need the ability to approach a topic on their level of understanding without talking down to them (after all, they are experts in their own areas).

Presentation skills: Closely related are skills standing up in front of a formal group and holding their attention for a predetermined amount of time.  You may need additional skills such as persuasion, logic and building an argument (in a factual manner, not being argumentative!).

Accounting skills: It is difficult to be persuasive if you cannot show the return in value for a given investment.  You don’t need to be a financial wiz, but you may need to rely upon something like net present value (NPV) for some presentations.  It will undoubtedly vary company to company and situation to situation, but you at least need to think “What is the financial benefit to the company?”

Leadership skills: How you motivate people on a daily basis sets managers apart from leaders.

  • Managers may have authority derived from a variety of sources.  Fear and intimidation have been and probably will continue to be used to motivate people to do things they otherwise would not want to do.  However, that is not a long term strategy.  Neither is “because I am the manager/expert and I said so”.  Sooner or later people will rebel, either overtly or in a passive-aggressive manner.  At best, you will wind up with people who are there to do their 40 hours and don’t care much about either the quality or the quantity of their work.
  • Leaders are often able to influence someone to not only do something but give them a positive reason to want to do it.  In fact, the best leader often taps into an individual’s creativity and has them come up with the best solution.

Networking: How well do you know who reports to whom in Marketing?  I have had this difficulty, and it caused pain on a particular project!  Do you know what they do there?  I mean, do you know any specific campaigns going on?  What about infrastructure (if you are a developer) or about development (if you are in infrastructure)?  What’s going on in those departments?

Business about the business:  How much do you, as a technical person, know about the business side of things?  IT does not exist in a vacuum.  If you are working for a manufacturing plant, how well do you know the products your company produces?  If you are working in healthcare, how well do you know the services your company or division supplies?

There are many other areas I could list: Emotional Intelligence, Federal Regulations and ISO just to name a few.  All of these will vary in importance from individual to individual, company to company and industry to industry.

On the one hand, I hope this all seems like common sense.  However, I am often surprised at how little effort is made by individuals who have been at companies for years to reach outside of their comfort zone.  Yet, this points to one of the most distinguishing characteristics of leadership: Initiative.  You cannot wait for others to give you “what you deserve”.  You’ll be setting yourself up for failure if you do that.

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I Am Not a Specialist, I Am a Manager

Posted by iammarchhare on 14 August 2009

There is a rank in the Army called “Specialist”.  There used to be about 3 levels: Specialist 4th Class, Specialist 5th Class, Specialist 6th Class (pretty rare), but by the time I entered, they were phasing out all but the “Spec 4” class.  The numbers, if you didn’t catch it, reflected the paygrade, so that’s why they don’t start with “1”.  Therefore, a Spec 4 and a Corporal are both “E-4” paygrade and make roughly the same amount of money (with some variation for years of service, etc.).

In many ways, it parallels the business world.  You go to “boot camp” or “basic training” (high school) to learn general things, then you go on to “advanced individual training” (college) to learn your craft.  However, when you come out, you are still basically a generalist.  Sure, your job title is well defined, but you are only expected to have a general level of proficiency in all tasks.  As you evolve, you learn more about your particular function and become a “specialist” or “Specialist”.

So, why was the Army doing away with most of the Specialist ranks?  For one thing, a “Specialist” is not a noncommissioned officer (NCO).  Therefore, in many enlisted members’ eyes, the Specialist had no real authority (even though that wasn’t strictly true, but the attitude was still prevalent).  However, an even more disturbing factor was that the Specialist concentrated so much on honing their skills for their particular job specialty that they often, intentionally or unintentionally, neglected their leadership skills.

I used to joke that I was a jack of all trades and master of none.  There is a particular truth to that statement, though.  I have a broad range of experience, even within IT.  That means I know only so much about many different areas.  I am not a specialist.

However, that’s not really a bad thing.  I do know a little about a lot of things.  That makes me a better manager.  I can talk to a network guy about IP addresses.  I can talk to the tester about user interface issues.  I can talk to the developer about classes.  I have setup LANs in computer labs and businesses.  I have assisted with testing.  I have done quite a bit of programming.  I no longer am, if indeed I ever was, an expert in any of these.  To be a manager, though, I don’t have to be.  That is why I have the specialists, the subject matter experts, to help advise on technical matters.

I think people have a tendency to pigeon-hole others.  I have a certificate that says I am a “project management professional”.  Does that make me a specialist?  I hope not.  I would argue that there are unique skills for being a project manager, yet any “manager”, if they are to be effective, must be much more of a generalist than a specialist.  In spite of what some people seem to think (and, sadly some are PMPs), it takes no real talent or ability to plug an EVM formula into a spreadsheet and update it weekly.  It’s what you do with that information that’s important.  It’s whether or not the project is successful that’s important, and that may take many different skills and may even be different for every project.

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