Why rookie IT managers make classic blunders

New managers often fail for predictable reasons. In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Carol A. Walker tells how good supervisors can help rookie managers avoid the obstacles that so often trip them up. Walker is president of Prepared to Lead ( http://www.preparedtolead.com), a management consulting firm in Weston, Mass. She previously worked for 15 years as an executive in the insurance and technology industries. Walker told Computerworld (US)‘s Kathleen Melymuka that these observations and lessons apply especially to IT, where the work of individual contributors and managers is hugely different.

Computerworld: Why do so many rookie IT managers fail?

Walker: Managing is always different from doing, but in IT, the difference may be even greater than in other fields. The reason they don’t succeed is that the difference is underappreciated. They don’t truly understand their new role and how they should be spending their time, which is fundamentally different.

Computerworld: What is the fundamental difference?

Walker: It’s the difference between guiding processes and communicating directions vs. rolling up your sleeves and writing code: individualized work vs. communication.

Computerworld: Why do new managers hesitate to ask for help?

Walker: Rookies are already feeling vulnerable. If they’re pretty high in self-confidence, they’re more likely to ask for help, but many don’t. In our society, asking for help tends to denote weakness, and IT is a field where people are even more used to having the answers.

Computerworld: As the rookie’s boss, how can I tell whether he needs help?

Walker: Observe the manager’s interactions with his staff. Find opportunities to talk to staff independently not about the manager, but about what’s going on in the department and how clear the objectives are. If objectives are clear and people seem focused, he’s probably doing a good job.

Computerworld: If a rookie needs help, how can I show that it’s OK to ask?

Walker: There’s no substitute for communication. Have regular meetings with rookie managers maybe more frequently in the beginning. Ask probing questions about big-picture issues.

Computerworld: Why do new IT managers often find it hard to delegate?

Walker: I suspect that in IT, the nature of work is so detail-oriented that it attracts a certain type of personality that is more comfortable with high degrees of detail. They tend not to like to give up control, and delegating is a matter of trusting and giving up control.

Computerworld: As the boss, how can I help?

Walker: Clarify expectations. Let them know the expectation is not that they’re doing everything, and help them understand that this is a huge transition, not a little thing. Let them know it’s normal to feel they may be not as productive as they used to be. At some levels, it may be still part of their job that they do some IT work, so it’s important to talk about what proportion of time you expect them to be doing this sort of thing vs. this other sort.

Computerworld: You say many rookie IT managers have image problems. What are some of those?

Walker: The issue is that rookies tend to not realize the influence they have on the people looking up to them as supervisors. If they have a poor reaction under pressure, if they’re short with others, or roll their eyes at issues that are tiresome or lose their temper, that demonstrates to the team that that’s acceptable behaviour. They lack awareness that every behaviour they demonstrate is telling everyone else what is acceptable.

Computerworld: If I see a rookie manager doing this, what do I do as his supervisor?

Walker: Often, they’re not aware of the behaviour. Take them aside and raise their consciousness: “I’m pretty sure you have no idea you’re doing this, but it’s likely to have this impact on your staff.” Let them know that people expect a sense of calmness and control from a leader.

Computerworld: You say I need to drag new IT managers out of the trenches. But aren’t they building rapport with the troops by diving in to fight the fires?

Walker: Everything in moderation. Depending on the level of management, different degrees of involvement are appropriate. In true emergencies, it may make sense to roll up your sleeves, but it can become very comfortable to fight fires because it feels very productive. It can become the norm, and then she’s ignoring the direction of the unit and strategy and thinking. If she’s continually putting out fires, she’s also telling her staff they’re not capable of handling that; they need her to do that.

Computerworld: Some rookies say strategic thinking is a luxury they can’t afford. How can I teach a rookie who has always been tactical to begin thinking strategically?

Walker: Use those regular communication sessions to pose the kinds of questions you expect them to be able to answer. Like, “What’s the competition doing in this area?” If they can’t answer, point out that this is the difference between a boss and a programmer and that a certain amount of their time needs to be spent on this. Show them what you expect them to be on top of, and tie it to promote ability. Point out that the higher in management they go, the more they will need to demonstrate this kind of thinking, and you want to give them the opportunity to practice it.

Computerworld: What don’t rookies get about feedback?

Walker: When feedback is delivered in a supportive manner, it’s the biggest gift they could receive; it’s the ability to see themselves as others see them. It allows them to grow. And people don’t get that. Sometimes feedback is not given in a perfect way, and then people are not open to receiving it.

Computerworld: So they have to learn to give and receive feedback?

Walker: Yes. And as in a dysfunctional family, when they receive feedback given in a bad way, they either hesitate to give feedback themselves because it was so negative for them or they copy the behaviours they see and give their own feedback in public or in an uncaring way or without tying it to success factors. Feedback is a touchy issue. Whether you give or receive it, it requires an environment of trust. As the boss, you have to demonstrate how to give good feedback.

Computerworld: How do I, as the rookie’s boss, negotiate the fine line between coaching and micromanaging?

Walker: If you set up that regular meeting time to talk about things, you’re not going to be in their face. Focus on their asking and your answering questions. In the beginning, they may not be able to know the right questions, so you ask the questions. And if you have to raise an issue, raise it in the form of a question: “What do you think of this area?” not “We’re not doing enough in this area.”