Managing People More Experienced Than You
15 September, 2021
“People are the best puzzles you’ll never solve.”
― Michael Lopp
As a leader, you will have to work with people of different skill-set and experience, as a leader it is important to know about your reportees well to lead them effectively. Everyone has a unique personality and you can collaborate effectively if you understand that and adapt the mode of communication as per the requirement. There is no - one rule that fits all. This becomes more critical when you have someone more senior and at a higher job band reporting to you. For example, many times staff engineers and architects having 20+ years of experience report to engineering managers on different job bands and lesser experience.
Earlier, I was managing ICs for about 6 years, and as I rose on the career ladder, I got a grasp on newer things, started working with people who have more experience than me. I realized that it is indeed challenging to manage" intelligent human beings." Our organization had done the DISC (Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientious) Assessment on all the managers to get a personality profile of those managers. This was essentially done for me to understand my strengths and personality traits but I tried to apply the same for my team as well.
This was not an autocratic leadership way of doing things, where my teammates are soldiers, and they would obey my orders. Managing intellectuals is all about strategizing because they often have questions, the answers to which you might not be familiar. Coming back, it is crucial to managing someone who has more experience than you in a careful way. In one way or another, juniors would still align with their leaders as they are generally considered on the WHAT and HOW parts and follow the guidelines, but people in senior roles are also focused on WAYs and if they don't understand something completely, they will not agree with leadership and disagreements with seniors usually result in conflicts.
My first step towards this situation was to assess their personality profile and where precisely in the DISC Assessment they lie. For example, I figured out if a staff engineer liked to be controlled, or more towards the steadiness part, whereby they were a team player, understanding, and patient. Understanding such behavioral styles, my way of dealing with them would adapt accordingly. Whenever you have doubts about how to deal with someone from senior management, the DISC Assessment is an excellent reference to touch on.
Next comes setting goals for these people. For instance, if I have a complicated person on my team who is senior to me and has a dominant profile, there is no way I could control them in a very direct manner. For example, I have learned that people with a dominant personality just need a goal and timelines upfront and they need more independence and flexibility to achieve that goal as per their working style. As long as they are empowered to have the required resources and make decisions, you can always trust them to get things done in the best possible way. But if you try to control too much, ask for updates too often, then it creates more problems for the long term. However, someone with an influential personality doesn't mind sharing frequent updates or having more discussions with leaders or peers in between.
When I get feedback from a junior in the team, it will make me think twice if what they are saying is correct. Again, depending on the personality profile, I made sure to provide feedback that fit them. In cases when it did not need to be too direct, it would be more like a discussion.
Another good example would be setting goals for the staff engineer or senior people, generally, we have standard goals and OKRs defined for every role, but as a manager, it is very critical for me to focus and ensure that everyone is aligned to those goals. For senior folks many times you get good feedback and suggestions that help to set a goal that is mutually beneficial and has the desired impact that our senior tech teams strive for.
- Be cognizant of one's personality. Focus on understanding an individual's differences and patterns in thinking, behaving, and feeling. This could save you from a lot of conflicts.
- How you define targets and goals can be flexible. For a junior person, I can explain an OKR and have them work towards it. But with a senior person, have a discussion first, align the goals and then move from there. Understand each and every person's motivation before assigning them something.
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