Managing Experienced People
9 August, 2021
Managing people of different seniority, experience, and competencies is what dreads many first-time managers. When it comes to managing people, nothing is further from the truth than the “one size fits all” mantra. There is a great difference between managing a fresh grad and someone with 5+ or 10+ years of experience, who may also be more knowledgeable in some domains than their manager.
When I have juniors on my team who don’t know how to do things, I know I need to coach them and show them how things are done -- step by step. If I approach seniors in the same manner, they will certainly be annoyed. For starters, senior people don’t want to be told how to do things. What they expect from a manager is to help them become better in their role.
That being said, when I manage experienced people, I try to position myself as a sounding board. I would be there to help them reflect on their actions and deliver constructive feedback. I try to stay away from giving instructions; instead, I prefer taking a more coaching stance by asking questions. Rather than telling them to do this or that, I would ask them if they considered doing this or that and if they had been talking to this or that person. I would also encourage them to explore the alternatives, asking them if they looked at different solutions. The way I would be asking those questions would be a bit probing, but this matches the expectations of more experienced people who like to be challenged.
While junior people need more direct guidance, senior people need much more context. Also, juniors may find being exposed to ambiguity disturbing or at least perplexing, and as a manager, I would try to protect them from those. On the other hand, senior people are accustomed to working in an ambiguous environment surrounded by many unknowns and shifting priorities. It is important to expose seniors to uncertainties and have them make the best decisions in those circumstances. This is strongly connected with nurturing their ability to work on several things in parallel and keeping a focus on each of those things.
I am aware that when I manage junior people, they are working for me, and that senior people prefer receiving some visibility and recognition for their individual efforts. That also included having them being exposed to the outside world. Visibility and exposure to different types of communication styles and feedback will only help them grow. When they succeed, it’s their success, but it will be their manager’s failure when they fail. Be straightforward with expectations upfront, and delineate responsibilities so they can assume responsibility for success and failure equally.
In the end, I think it’s critical to let people fail and learn from their failures. However, with juniors, failures need to be highly controlled. If not contained, they can have dramatic consequences impacting both a project and them psychologically. On the other hand, senior people need to experience failures of all kinds and to learn to cope with them. It’s almost like riding a bicycle: it’s not enough to know everything about it; you need to experience it. There is no other way for one to learn but to fall and keep falling until they learn to ride.
- When you manage junior people, you need to teach them how to run, race-pace them and help them out throughout their run. When you manage senior people, you need to step back, cheer them up and give them tools to help them run faster.
- Junior people look at you for your experience and knowledge; seniors are interested in feedback and context that you can provide. Senior people mainly don’t need to hear from you how to do things. As Steve Jobs famously put it, It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.
- Being a manager of more experienced people is far more demanding in a way. They may have skills that you don’t have, are used to doing things a certain way, are more opinionated. Sometimes their domain expertise will exceed yours, and to help them, you will have to seek advice elsewhere.
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