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April 11, 2011

On becoming a manager

by mikediliberto

I’ve found that there is a clear distinction between the mindset of a manager and the mindset of another group that, for lack of a better term, I call the “doers”.  The difference in mindset is most apparent when things go wrong.  On the one hand, you have the doers.  When problems arise, this group is the first to grab their laptops, soldering irons, and toolboxes, and jump right in to sort out the issues. The managers, on the other hand, must take a different approach. A manager, responsible not to one master, but many, must take the time to consider the problem before them, and weigh the implications of each prescribed course of action.  In any given day, the problems you will face can be many, and being able to juggle all of these successfully often means changing your mindset.

As someone who is a technologist by way of undergraduate education, and a manager by way of experience and graduate studies, this is a battle that I fight, internally, on a daily basis.  I have always been a doer, always the first one to get on a plane and sort

Late night, on the phone with the lead engineer, soldering it all together in time for a presentation to the customer in the morning

out whatever issue had cropped up at the moment. Transitioning to a managerial role means going against behavior that, for the first half of my career, had been instinctual.

During a job interview or yearly review, you may be asked to discuss your weaknesses (or shall we say, “opportunities for growth and improvement”).  This one is mine.  Almost daily, I fight the urge to fix the issues as they occur. When a problem arises, I almost instinctively want to rush to the site of whatever it is that has gone wrong, and give that one situation my singular focus.

The issue is that, by giving one problem my sole focus, all of the other decisions and course corrections that I need to make throughout the day fall to the side. By ignoring the forest and focusing on one tree, I will have probably created more issues than I will have solved.  You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that working in this way is simply not sustainable.

Transitioning into management is akin to becoming an orchestral conductor.  You need to have a great ear, to keep your finger on the pulse of the operation.  You must be able to correct the course quickly, and at all times know where it is that you are going before you get there. As a manager, your employees are not served by you taking on their responsibilities any more than an orchestra is served by the conductor picking up a instrument and playing along.

Count to ten

We’ve probably all heard the old adage, that when you’re overwhelmed, you should stop and “count to ten” before you act.  I use this same technique at work.  Nobody would be served were I to simply dash out of the room to chase every issue that arose.  And so, in making decisions in a managerial capacity, I find that taking the time to consciously stop, take stock, and (mentally) count to ten helps to put everything in perspective.

The right man for the right job

There is an old story about Henry Ford. Legend has it that, while being grilled by reporters about his automotive industry credentials, he offered to answer any of their questions.  The first, a question about engineering: when queried, he did not answer, but offered up his lead engineer to answer the question.  This continued, with questions answered not by Henry himself, but by the person most qualified to answer on behalf of the company.

As a manager, I do my best to adopt a similar mindset.  As in my previous point, above, I constantly do battle with the desire to simply get things done on my own.  Yet, I am most certainly not the best man for the job.  Throughout my career, I have sought to surround myself with people more skilled than I am.  When I was younger, this manifested itself in my desire to have mentors in every phase of my career.  Later, I sought out these same types of qualities in those people that have come to work for me.  Whether the student or the teacher, I never want to be the smartest person in the room, just the best manager.

One last thing

That is not to say that as a manager you cannot dash from the room to deal with emergencies, and in fact many times you will have to do so. In the world of manufacturing, things can and will go wrong, and knowing when a situation has reached the tipping point is just as important as being able to hold back and send someone else in your stead.

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