One of the questions I get a lot from newer managers is: “How do I manage someone who is older and more experienced, knowledgeable, and talented than I am?”

The people asking this question typically feel awkward managing someone who, by many measures, is more competent in a particular area.

The only people who don’t feel this awkwardness are seasoned CEOs. A good CEO hires people who are smarter, more experienced, and more talented in their respective functional areas than the CEO.

This is the situation that a good CEO strives for — to be the so-called “dumbest” person in the room. It means you recruited well.

The same is true for seasoned Incident Commanders for emergency response situations. I will be doing a training exercise in a few weeks where I’ll command an incident simulating a multiple-casualty situation after a major earthquake.

The ham radio operations team reporting to me will be far more capable at radio operations than I am. I will have physicians and nurses from a volunteer medical core running medical operations who will report to me too. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nurse. Combined, they will have hundreds of years more experience than I do in medicine.

My point in all this is you don’t have to be “superior” to others in every way in order to effectively manage them.

A good leader must:

  1. Determine the right goal to focus on (a.k.a. setting a strategic objective).
  2. Develop the tactical approach (a.k.a. overall approach to solving the problem).
  3. Break up the approach into specific assignments.
  4. Assign issues to direct reports.
  5. Keep all team members in alignment until they achieve the objective.

None of these five leadership functions requires functional expertise that exceeds that of those who report to you.

What they do require are:

a) Sufficient functional knowledge to comprehend tradeoff decisions in a functional area.
b) The ability and willingness to ask questions and learn enough functional knowledge to understand tradeoff decisions.

A lot of managing multiple people comes down to making tradeoff decisions across the team.

If you have three direct reports, each of your direct reports likely knows more about their specific job area than you do. That is not a problem.

However, what you should have is a basic understanding of the relative importance of each of the three areas reporting to you and how they interrelate.

For example, let’s say you have an additional staff person you can assign to any of the three areas that report to you. It is your job to decide which team to assign your additional staff to, given the objective at hand.

Your direct report’s job is to manage this additional staff effectively.

Notice the difference?

Your direct report has functional expertise.

Your job is to make tradeoff decisions across multiple areas.

In other words, their job is to go deep into their area of expertise.

Your job is to go broad (and just deep enough) to understand how to coordinate across these different areas (and to make tradeoff decisions across these areas when needed).

If you want to increase your skill level in managing others, you must get good at asking questions.

The inexperienced manager who stays inexperienced says, “I don’t know, and therefore, I don’t know how to make the right decision.”

The inexperienced manager who becomes more experienced says, “I don’t know… but help me understand how this works. Why is X important? You keep mentioning Y. What is Y? Why does Y matter?”

Good leaders can be effective by developing a conceptual understanding of a topic without necessarily developing deeper expertise in a functional area than a direct report.

Here are some examples. Let’s say you manage a technical resource (this could be a technologist, lawyer, CPA, or medical professional). In short, they know more than you do by a wide margin.

They come to you with a proposal. If you add $200,000 to their budget, they can increase the headcount of their team by two or three. That will increase their turnaround time for the work orders in their group by 70%.

This is a tradeoff decision.

You don’t need to understand technology, law, accounting, or medicine to grasp the concept that for $200,000 you can buy a 70% faster turnaround time in the department in question.

The question you do need to be able to answer is whether a 70% improvement in turnaround time is worth the $200,000 cost.

You can rely on other technical experts to assess whether the $200,000 estimate is reasonable or if the estimated 70% improvement in turnaround time is really going to be in the 70% range.

What your direct reports cannot answer is whether the $200,000 is worth spending on the 70% improvement… or if you’re better off spending that $200,000 on some other need in a different area (that the person making the proposal is not familiar with).

When most people think about becoming more successful, they tend to be biased toward developing deeper expertise in a functional area. The entry-level engineer seeks to become a more advanced engineer. The entry-level salesperson seeks to become a more seasoned salesperson.

It’s useful to keep in mind that functional expertise is not the only type of expertise that can be developed. The ability to manage and lead is an entirely different skill set that can be overlaid on top of functional knowledge.

As you think about your professional development plan to achieve your career objectives, don’t overlook this important and often under-appreciated skill area — managing and leading.

These skills need to be acquired and developed in some way, shape, or form. They do not just magically fall from the sky and into your brain. You have to be deliberate in acquiring those skills.

Have you ever managed a more experienced direct report? Comment below to let me know.

How to Live an Amazing Life – Sign Up for Free Tips and Strategies for your Career and Life.

This form collects your name and email so that we can add you to our email list that delivers the free resources you are requesting. Check out our privacy policy for details on how we protect and manage your submitted data.

We’ll never spam you or share your email. Unsubscribe at any time.