Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The problem with managers


Jake Barnes, who blogs at The Oilfield Expat, has a very good article about the perils of selecting managers from among the ranks of technical specialists.  He writes in the context of the oil industry, but from my own work experience in the information technology field and in pastoral ministry, his words are appropriate for those disciplines as well.  Here's an excerpt.

A lot of managers are former engineers or other junior staff who have shown technical competence or, more usually, served time or are of a certain age.  The problem with this method of selecting managers is that it ignores the fact that management is more about personality than technical ability.  Engineers tend to focus intently on details, and the better engineers do this more than the not-so-good ones.  However, the latter often have a better grasp on the context in which calculations are taking place and a better appreciation of external factors not directly related to their own discipline, which is why most project engineers are former discipline engineers who found they either weren’t very good at calculations or got bored doing them.

What the oil industry rarely does is select youngsters who show signs of having a personality more suited to management than technical work – of which an ability to see the broader picture is but one of several – and assign them small, fairly trivial management tasks in order for them to gain experience in managing a process with the aim of achieving certain goals.

. . .

... experience is not required to manage something: competence is.  But the oil industry is obsessed with a belief that management is something that must be earned only via strict technical competence or age, and as such denies its young employees the chance to hone their management skills on simple projects.  Instead, they wait until they are approaching 50 before catapulting them into the Project Manager position on a nasty, brutal project in some seriously challenging environment like Kazakhstan and expect that they will learn and apply fundamental management concepts on their first try.  Almost none of them do.  Half of them were never suited to management anyway, and the half that might have been were never given the chance to learn in a more forgiving environment.

There's more at the link.  I daresay most of my readers from a commercial or industrial background will find much to agree with.

Peter

9 comments:

Timbo said...

Worst boss I ever had was a person who came out of an auditing background and was being groomed for senior management. Unfortunately his entry level job was as regional operations manager, Southern Europe with companies in four countries reporting to him. Fun and games, not!

Will said...

In most industry, a technical manager is not considered to be a real management type, and tend to be left out of the typical management dance schedule. This, of course, eliminates them from being considered for any serious upper management positions.

Any attempt by them to move to a non-tech position will unleash the full competitive force of the regular managers, which attention they cannot survive, unless they have the mental makeup of a normal manager. Few tech types have this, or they would not bother to waste time on the tech side. They quickly switch tracks when they realize they are management material, as the rewards are much greater.

Anonymous said...

DuPont decided in the 70's that good researchers did not make good managers for one very important reason. Good driven researchers did not want to be managers but only took the job because that was the only way to increase their salary. DuPont started a separate technical track to retain people and increase moral.

I believe the Air Guard units did a similar track for pilots that just wanted to be flyers.

Gerry

Richard Tengdin said...

I suffered the same Up or Out syndrome during my 9 years in the aerospace industry, max grade engineers moving to the management track because there weren't any raises available unless they got a PhD...

I'm now at a small computer systems VAR and ALL of our project managers are just that: trained project managers with PMI certifications. Utterly non-technical but they trust our delivery engineers to complete tasks on time.

Makes much more sense than using a Pre-sales architect (me) or the sales rep take time away from getting new business to manage delivery on existing projects.

Anonymous said...

Sorry i work for a Company that believes that if your a good manager then you can manage anything. The problem is they have absoloutly no idea about the technical aspects of the job. So you have "managers" making strategic and tactical decisions which have no basis in reality.
Thus the last finanacial crash was born. People who managed these companies hadn't done the hard yards of learning what credit default swaps were and what the risks are, a whole host of risk was taken on because the manager only managed and never went "whoa we can't take that risk" because they never knew it existed.
It is the greatest fallacy in modern times. The Manager knows all. The Expert runs the toys and gets paid crap, that is untill the s**t hits the fan and the expert has to work like hell to get the vital system running.
Ultimately you wouldn'rt want that Nucleur Powerplant being managed by somebody with a Phd in Media Studies, and if you value your company you wouldn't have it run by a Manager who will probably be an accountant who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Jake Barnes said...

Thanks for the link and kind words Peter, they are much appreciated!

Jake Barnes said...

@Anonymous,

Sorry i work for a Company that believes that if your a good manager then you can manage anything. The problem is they have absoloutly no idea about the technical aspects of the job. So you have "managers" making strategic and tactical decisions which have no basis in reality.

Then they are not good managers. Knowing what you don't know is as important as knowing stuff, and a good manager ought to know that his role is managerial and not technical, and his role is to put in place a good technical team who he then listens to (and holds accountable). Even if the manager is technically competent in a certain field, it is not his job in his role of manager to start interfering. In the oil industry you can tell what field a manager is from because he wants to do the discipline engineer's job as well.

Ultimately you wouldn'rt want that Nucleur Powerplant being managed by somebody with a Phd in Media Studies, and if you value your company you wouldn't have it run by a Manager who will probably be an accountant who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Absolutely. The manager needs to be an engineer, just not one who has been promoted to manager because he was the best engineer.

Jake Barnes said...

Sorry, the HTML tags didn't work. I was quoting anonymous in 1st and 3rd paragraphs.

Wayne said...

My dad was an exception to this rule. He was a genius level scientist, but also a great leader. He was a senior manager at his work, but was able to get his job description written as 50% technical/research, 50% management.

He was also a volunteer leader in the Boy Scouts. His leadership was so respected that he was given the honorary Indian name "Teacher of Leaders."