Home » Leadership » Senior Manager It Is OK Not To Be An Expert Which Is Why You Have A Project Manager

It always happened. Now that we are getting close to the project launch, we start to get “help.”  Instead of having technical leads or technicians reporting, for example the status of defects, we would get VPs showing up and providing a status.  What is this all about?  How can they afford to do this?

Senior Manager It Is OK Not To Be A Project ExpertWe get caught up in the notion that senior management needs to know a lot of the details.  It shows how “involved” they are in the project.  When we have a new startup and the founders, who did the original development are now the COO and CEO, yes of course we expect them to still know a lot about what is going on.  They put it all together after all.

What goes wrong is when we want to “appear” to be on top of the details that rightfully our folks are responsible for being on top of.  In the particular case I refer to, the VPs would be surrounded by a cadre of “feeders” that would provide them the information they need to “sound” like they are one of the original founders of the company, and hence know all things. I found it is almost always a waste of time and nothing more than effectively another layer of bureaucracy.

Absolutely, we need to refresh our insights as senior managers.  I’ve talked about these techniques before — where we spend time with the troops and get a feel for what is really going on.  This helps build our gut and allows us a better chance of making good decisions the first time.  But we still need our VPs to do what they should be doing — the strategic long term health of the organization.  When our VPs are trying to be technical experts, they have to be spending less time on overall organizational issues, and it readily shows.

Strangely in these situations, as a project manager, I knew for example more about how the engineering department performed than the engineering VP did.  I knew this because I constantly looked at their overall performance numbers (and I mined them from the available data systems), while the VPs instead tried to understand defects that came in a dozen at a time and were fixed just as fast.  They were lucky to memorize them long enough to comment on each, just in time to memorize the next dozen and do the same.  But, did they know how their organization performed?  Nope.  They were always shocked (or went into denial) when hearing how long their teams were taking to fix defects, or how long to estimate new requirements, or the average number of weeks their teams were late at delivering those requirements.  How could they plan, improve and commit resources when they didn’t know how their organizations performed?

The humorous part was that I didn’t memorize, or pretend to know, all those details when I was the project manager.  Instead, folks knew I kept a database (which was a technical feat in itself) of all the issues.  I could pull up the information on any issue within a few seconds. (Note, yes — most folks can pull up defect information from a defect tracking database, but do they also get all the related e-mails, status slides and reports?  I could, in seconds.).  The VPs needed a dozen folks giving them information, and they often had them on the conference calls with them to answer any questions.  I, instead, had just set up a database, that pulled the same data from the same sources the individuals were feeding to the VPs. (See a better use for long hours for how we did it.)

Yes, senior managers, find ways to renew our gut and to understand what is going on so as to make good decisions. Don’t try and pretend to be the technical expert as we have experts that are experts to be our experts. Focus on the overall strategy, health, training and direction of our team.  Give our project managers the resources and support to do their job,and we won’t need to be the expert!

Have you seen senior managers attempting to manage details that would be better managed by team members or the project manager?

Thank you for sharing!

3 thoughts on “Senior Manager It Is OK Not To Be An Expert Which Is Why You Have A Project Manager

  1. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Danielle Norman • I agree 100%! Leaders need to be informed but not drenched in the details so they can do what we need to them to – lead! The challenge becomes in finding that right line of detail at the various levels. Of course, this varies by organization and evolves as the relationships between team members evolve.

    Jonathon Andell • During my final years at Motorola I saw a large number of “leaders” who were unable to admit they didn’t know everything. It’s as if the culture had zero tolerance for being human. Can be crippling, because it causes people to make decisions without the support that could be available to them. My facility sure made some doozies of bad decisions as a result.

    Sergio Silva • On my understanding, a good leader does not need to know everything, he needs to know who knows and how to get a good support from them to build and takes the correct decision.

    Abdul Rehman Chughtai, PMP, MCIPS • Well, how the things gets done in military!! is it not a good example to go back to?

    Jaime Casas • Just Imagine going beyond FMEA till robust solution, but never sacrificing qualitative performance. And never forget the universal problem solving; If you are missing, put. remove it if you have left. Thanks!

    Bruce Benson • Sergio: ” he needs to know who knows” – dead on. Sometimes I thought my only real contribution to an effort was I knew who the experts were – even the more obscure subject matter experts.
    Danielle: Sometimes I like the “drenching in detail” as long as no one expects me to remember all the details. I like to build concepts/trends/patterns from the detail, but that is just my own preference. Otherwise I agree that the “balance” is the hard part and at any given time we’ll be leaning one way or the other. The trick is to do this in an appropriate manner.
    Jonathon: Yes, I’ve experienced this also. I’ve also seen it where, in not knowing everything, they just make an assertive claim of fact (e.g., from WAG to lie) and then stared or talked down anyone who might try to “correct” them. It seems a cross between wanting to appear omniscient to wanting to keep control, even if based upon random notions. When it gets this bad it is pretty hard to remedy the situation.

    Great feedback, thanks.


  2. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    John Blakowski, CPIM, CIRM • I have seen this practice and probably engaged in getting down in the weeds occasionally. It is useful to demonstrate to new team members that you do the subject matter and to gain their respect for your knowledge and methodical approach. That is something a good leader, aka project manager, needs to demonstrate but only occasionally.

    Malaya Samal, MBA, PMP • While making strategic decisions for the whole program or the team, a Senior Manager needs to have leadership qualities to win the confidence and respect of the whole team. If possessed with a good technical ability, it is always an added advantage rather than relying blindly on others.

    Linn Richardson • Yup.. Sometimes they can’t afford Not to – Their butt is also on the line.

    Nobody can be an expert in everything, but you are right in that you can not blindly rely on a single point of failure in any discipline. Risk exposure for your company, rather than the single project is a shared responsibility of VPs and PMs,. Should things (heaven forbid) go south during the actual implementation they sometimes may want to be there for immediate client damage control – I have met some PMs that were slow to escalate or not thorough in their benchmarks and testing in the past.

    Hopefully all risk has been mitigated, well ahead of time, but not all apps play nice together when it hits the fan, and if no client impact was promised things can get ugly quick up in SLA land, and impact client trust on a much higher level than just your project – esp if your is not the first to go south in recent days…or one LOS may be having problems that the PMO knows nothing about..quite yet. Sometimes the VP is just doing their own due diligence.

    Bruce Benson • John, Yes, especially with new folks, the manager can clearly play a part in shaping what they do and part of that is letting them know what it is the manager brings to the effort (esp if they have a particular skill). I often talk about “renewing our gut” by periodically getting involved with the technical work. I think these are great approaches.

    Malaya, Agreed, it can be tough to manage if one does not have the background or experience in what is being managed. It is tough to make good decisions in that situation and we have to rely on others as well as quickly getting ourselves up to speed (which can be tough in a large, complex, fast moving project). If we keep moving up in the organization (or getting larger projects) we are pretty much guaranteed to end up managing things we don’t have direct experience in. Managing this kind of situation is a skill in and of itself (finding trusted experts, management by walking around, etc.) but having technical expertise in the areas of concern is always a great advantage.

    Linn, I’ve had a few great senior managers who I could tell wanted to “get more involved” but knew they needed to let their folks do the job. I could always count on these folks to quickly engage if we needed them. It was a huge advantage when things started to careen off the tracks and we needed someone with weight to influence another organization into doing something differently and quickly. So having a VP around is not a bad thing, until they want to move from being the coach to being the player on the field – and they don’t realize they are way too far out of shape to do anything other than embarrass themselves (and possibly lose the game).

    Great comments, thanks for the feedback.


  3. Bruce Benson says:

    Comments from around the web:

    Ilan Michaelis • Don’t under estimate managers. There are many who grew up from the bottom to be a manager. It is not expected from manager to be familiar with the lower technical details. However, it is expected from managers to be able to influence high level design aspects and understand the consequences. At the same time, managers should have project plan view and understanding of risks.

    Anthony Rogers • I have a simple view. Everyoone should be doing their job and there wont be the need for conjecture. Senior Mangers need to focus on the organisational issues and strategy, Program and Project managers need to focus on delivering the project and the experts need to focus on providing the expert technical advice and direction. If everyone just did their jobs this question would not exist.

    Bruce Benson • Ilan, Agreed. When someone has come up from an individual contributor, they can have significant depth in their insight. I did have one VP call a meeting, where he then started to describe how we should have done our project (only a few months away from what would be an on time and successful delivery) with the unstated notion that we should start to make some changes. I flat out told him that if he wanted to influence the project, he should have gotten engaged over 12 months earlier. He seemed to think he was helping and that significant changes a few months before delivery was a perfectly good place to make changes. I will say in his defense that the organization we were in had a consistent history of late and buggy projects. He had “grown up” in this organization and this was apparently the same behavior (jumping in at the end) that got him is promotions. I’ve authored an article on this kind of behavior and why it can get people promoted: http://pmtoolsthatwork.com/a-successful-manager-but-never-a-successful-project/

    Anthony, absolutely. Managers do need to manage their teams (senior managers their organizations). Its that balance of each doing their job in an appropriate manner that sometimes goes askew. Too often managers, trying to do their job the best way they know how, stray too far — neglect their primary job and end up interfering too much in someone else’s — and don’t even realize it. Often the solution is to simply (and diplomatically – which I didn’t do in the example to Ilan) highlight the situation to encourage a rebalance.

    Thanks for the feedback.


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