Managing knowledge workers

As a competent knowledge worker, sooner or later you will have to manage other people. Not everyone finds this easy.

Part of the problem is knowledge workers are highly trained specialists. A typical knowledge worker has skill and experience — but these are narrowly focused.

Despite the millions of dollars invested and all the hours spent on lifetime learning, surprisingly few of us get the opportunity to pick up much in the way of people management training.

One estimate found less than 10 percent of line managers in Australia and New Zealand have had any formal instruction organising, leading, motivating and otherwise dealing with subordinate workers. When there is formal training, it is rudimentary, maybe a day or two in a seminar and few hands-on workshops.

This lack of formal management education means you should always show interest if your employer offers to pay for management training. As all knowledge workers know, rare skills that are in demand are valuable.

If you can show a prospective employer you’ve completed a conflict resolution course or similar in addition to your specialist skills, you’ll push yourself to the front of the short list and maybe able to negotiate a better deal.

After all, everyone is looking for leaders.

The biggest problem is people often don’t like taking courses. Don’t kid yourself you don’t have the time for formal management training. Make the time. Then use your new skills to lead others as you catch up on missed work and then move into fast forward.

There are lucky people who seem to have innate people management abilities. I’ve seen a few of these, but sometimes I cringe watching younger knowledge workers as they struggle to deal with subordinates.

One error made by beginning managers is to take fictional management role models at face value and act out the role as if they were playing in a soap opera or a movie. You might see successful two-fisted managers on TV, Australia has had its fair share of these types in the past, but thumping the desk and screaming at people is no way to succeed in the knowledge economy.

There are good management role models elsewhere on television. For example, many sports team coaches and captains show the management qualities that you’d expect to see in a modern information-based company.

International cricket captains are worth watching. You’ll notice the best ones consult with key players, listen to their specialist advice, deliver sober encouragement when required, calm down the more headstrong mavericks and take calculated risks. They keep everyone focused on the result while ensuring  the process works.

There are differences between captaining a cricket team and managing knowledge workers. Yet on some levels the two tasks are the same. Of course these captains are not perfect, they do dumb things and make mistakes. But from a management technique observer’s point of view this is even better than watching them glide along never putting a foot wrong.

Next time you decide to kill a few hours watching any top-level professional sport make a point of observing the management styles of both teams with a critical eye.