For both aspiring and experienced managers, managing someone whose formal qualifications are more advanced than their own can be daunting. Read about how to deal constructively with the issue
Opportunities abound in our global, knowledge based economy for scientists, engineers and professionals in any field to specialise. To do so often requires many years of postgraduate study and, in some cases, choosing to delay or forego entirely opportunities to climb the managerial career ladder. For many professionals, career choices set the course early for technical specialisation.
For aspiring and experienced managers alike, the prospect of managing someone, whose formal qualifications are more advanced than the manager’s own, can seem daunting. It can be especially troubling to a manager whose own early career was in a related field where a ‘discipline hierarchy’ exists. For example the qualified dental nurse who later studied part-time to gain an MBA in parallel with her career as a nurse manager and has now been appointed to manage a unit providing public dental services. Or the individual who, after completing an undergraduate engineering degree, pursued a career in local government and now, several years down the track, has been appointed to a senior management position in an infrastructure services division with a number of direct reports with Masters degrees and PhDs in engineering disciplines.
There are other circumstances too which can result in managers having line responsibility for the work of highly qualified people, who may have held formal leadership roles themselves, but circumstances such as retrenchment, a period of ill-health or a preference for life balance over long hours have resulted in their current appointment.
Managers in these situations benefit from consideration of three important aspects of their role.
People management in practice
First it helps to examine their own management philosophy, in particular their understanding of what ‘people management’ means in practice. Unless a line manager is responsible for the work of trainees or inexperienced people requiring detailed guidance on how to do their job, ‘people management’ effort is most usefully directed away from ideas about managing people directly and into the creation of a working environment that is conducive to high quality work.
‘Working environment’ includes much more than the physical working spaces provided for professionals. It covers a range of other factors such as clearly defining staff responsibilities and accountabilities. This is because however advanced their qualifications and however extensive their experience, all staff need clear boundaries which define the scope of their role and enable them to make informed decisions about where to focus their time and energy. Clarity of role scope also supports development of effective working relationships and interactions with others inside and outside the organisation. Finally, clear boundaries provide a foundation for the effective performance management, reporting and feedback processes which characterise productive workplaces and high-performing organisations.
Professionals as people
The second aspect of managing highly qualified professionals is to also look beyond the requirements of the role and its contribution to the organisation to develop some understanding of each professional as a person. What drives them to do a good job? What led to their career choices? What sustains their passion for the work? What is their career history? And how does their experience in prior roles influence their approach to their current role?
This is not a call for intrusive questioning of busy people by newly appointed managers; rather it is a reminder that everyone is an individual and that an appreciation of a person’s unique contribution and potential contribution within the agreed scope of their role is an important factor in successfully managing highly qualified staff.
For example, the former CEO, retrenched mid-career and now in a non-management role is used to thinking and working strategically. Whilst formal strategic planning is now outside the scope of his role, he might benefit from insights into strategic direction because he sees this as context for his current role.
A way into the conversations which lead to better understanding the people who report to them is for managers to enquire what support their staff need from them. Highly specialised professionals are unlikely to respond with a request for detailed supervision of how they fulfil their role since they probably have a strong network of peers in their field. However management support to attend the conferences which enable them to maintain their professional network may be highly valued and motivating.
The third aspect of managing highly qualified professionals is for managers to pay sufficient attention to their own development as managers and leaders. The need for managers to develop well-honed analytical, problem-solving and decision-making skills comes into stark relief in settings employing highly-qualified staff whose own professional practice demands rigorous analysis, evidence-based decision-making and sound judgement. A group of construction engineers is unlikely to commit to a restructure of the organisation without a well-substantiated rationale for the change; the organisation expects no less from them in their design endeavours!
Management and leadership development must include system and process-related ‘hard’ skills and an array of the so-called ‘soft skills’ relating to people and relationships at work. Dealing effectively with managing highly-qualified professionals calls for a rich mix of skills from both these categories.
Finally, a manager’s professional development program is incomplete without adequate attention to their self development. This includes an appropriate mix of emotional intelligence, resilience and sensitivity to events and circumstances, according to their particular circumstances. Above all, managers must pay on-going attention to the development of self knowledge; that is, the reflective practice though which they develop insights into what makes them tick and how they perceive the world around them.
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant facilitator and management educator specialising in organisational and leadership development governance and performance improvement and team dynamics through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au).
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