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How to manage teams when you’re not the subject matter expert

You don’t need to be a subject matter expert to be a good manager. But you need to know how to empower your people to do their best work.

How to manage teams when you’re not the subject matter expert
[Photo: Steven Lelham/Unsplash]

Managers often have backgrounds in the disciplines of their reports: financial analysts become financial managers, software engineers become product managers. But my first job out of college was as a startup founder. That meant I had to start managing people immediately—without any direct experience in the trenches or subject matter expertise.

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Unsurprisingly, I made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t know the ins and outs of my employees’ day-to-day tasks, so the trust between us started off rocky. But I learned that I could add value by creating an environment that let the team do its best work. When I took the time to understand the team’s context and gain its trust, the result was a dynamic, productive, problem-solving team.

Since then, I’ve taught myself to be proactive about managing a team whose domain isn’t in my area of expertise. Here’s what I do to learn and build trust when I’m not an expert:

1. Admit you’re still learning

When I first became a product manager, I was supervising an engineering team. It became clear pretty quickly that I didn’t understand the complexities and constraints team members were facing. And because no one was going to teach me how to do my job correctly (and they shouldn’t have to), I realized I had to be proactive in learning about the challenges.

I was upfront with a few folks on the team, and they guided me toward books, events, and talks outside the organization that would help me better understand their world. I even took a couple of coding classes. I wasn’t an expert—and I didn’t pretend to be—but I worked to learn the team’s lingo, which enabled me to ask better questions and gain the team’s trust. Ultimately, I realized I’d learned enough about the team members’ day-to-day challenges and problems to have productive conversations that guided them toward progress.

It’s okay to tell your team that you’re still learning. Ask questions to show that you care about your team’s input. Behave like a student, and allow team members to be your teachers. Don’t be that boss who comes in and then disappears—be present. Identify the influential teammates whom others admire, find out what their roles are like, and learn as much as you can from them.

2. Understand the context of past failures

In a different role, I was in charge of the manufacturing department and its workers—employees who’d worked there for 20 years or more. At the time, the team was running poorly and missing deadlines. I dug into the root causes and found repeated communication gaps, which was a byproduct of siloed departments and frequent turnover. No one understood each other.

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To right the wrongs in the department, I needed more context around the team’s past efforts. I needed to examine what succeeded and what failed and assessed it against the current landscape before proposing any ideas. For the team to take me seriously, I knew that I had to demonstrate knowledge and awareness around the broader circumstances.

To ensure I had that full context, I conducted outside research on well-run systems and lean factories—plus organizational communication. I started implementing programs to help the department meet its deadlines. For example, the purchasing department had a major problem of parts getting to a particular stage and then stalling out, so I implemented a system to track purchases and give the department a better understanding of when to buy the product. As a result, our process and inventory control ran more efficiently.

Even though I didn’t know anything about running a factory, I used my experience talking to people, taking notes, finding patterns, and locating root causes to solve the problem. I also made an effort to build trust with employees who were predisposed to mistrust me.

3. Meet with team members individually

Make sure your team members know you’re there to help them. Managers often feel like they need to prove their knowledge, but you have to ditch that thinking. The individual contributors at work are the experts, and your job is to empower them to do their best work.

Meet with everyone on the team individually, and ask them what’s going well or poorly. Pose questions that hit on the elements of a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This will help you spot problems, find the high-impact small wins, and determine any longer-term projects and issues.

In that vein, set one-on-one meetings to build trust with people in other departments. A lack of expertise can be an advantage in terms of learning how the rest of the organization views your team—you can play the role of student and demonstrate you care about others’ perspectives and how your team’s work relates to theirs.

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Managing people is a skill in itself. Whether or not you’re a subject matter expert, a good manager needs to cultivate an environment that allows your people to do their best work. If you work to hear everyone’s ideas and build trust, you’ll create a team that’s equipped to solve problems.


Kash Mathur is the COO of Chewse, a service that delivers family-style meals to offices from the best local restaurants, transforming transactional drop-off delivery into an inclusive meal experience while donating surplus food to those in need through the Chewse to Give program.

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