Often thrust into management, many new managers find that they must learn the subtleties of not only running projects and budgets, but also the intricacies of managing people. In the process, most new managers soon discover that one of the most difficult things to do is to keep yourself calm, collected and neutral with those you interact with—even when patience wears thin, or certain team members frustrate you.
Here are some ways to avoid this:
Be approachable and accessible
Strong project teams are created when team members know that their manager is fair, approachable and accessible—by anyone on the team, and not by just a few. Early in my career I had a manager like this. I had just been hired into my first IT job — without any background in IT. The project I was on was critical and I was new to everything I was doing. My manager was a seasoned vet, but he seemed to understand my natural anxiety, and I really believed that his door was always open as I was learning the project ropes. To be like this with everyone is easier said than done because there are always some individuals and personalities that are more natural for you to get along with than others. The sooner new managers recognize which personalities are more difficult for them to get along with, the sooner they can make adjustments so they get to know these individuals and to develop an open rapport with them. Experienced managers do this by walking around, and being sure to spend casual time with project members whom they don't know as well personally.
Always be fair—but don't strive to be liked
It's natural to want to be liked, but if you are a manager faced by tough choices in a project, or if you have to have a difficult conversation with an individual on your staff, this isn't always possible. Instead, what managers should strive for is to be fair. The first time I heard this was when I got my first management assignment. My boss at the time told me, "You are not being paid to be a nice guy." I remember that my first reaction to the advice was not exactly favorable-but as I got into the dynamics of managing projects, I began to understand the importance of being "tough but fair" when it was necessary, like when I had team members who were not giving the project their best efforts, or who were trying to undermine the morale of others on the project. These were the times that I closed the office door and confronted the individuals directly, reminding them of what was expected and what the consequences could be if change didn't come quickly.
Carefully consider your decisions
Managers are called upon to make many decisions throughout a project, and they will not always be right the first time. Once I suggested scheduling a major regression test for a software system on an upcoming weekend. My operations staff came back to me and suggested instead that we wait for a later holiday weekend, to ensure that we had adequate time for troubleshooting if we needed it. It was a better idea than my original one.
Since then, I have always been open to staff suggestions that can make the decisions better. In other cases, such as when you make a decision that is right but that might not be popular with everyone, over-communicate through emails, memos, meetings, conversations, or whatever it takes until you are sure everyone understands the basis for the decision. You might have staff members who wanted to see a different decision, but even if they disagree, they will at least understand the rationale behind the decision.
Accept that you can't know it all
Managers who come from very technical backgrounds have a hard time adjusting to project management roles where they must manage areas of expertise that they themselves do not know to a detailed degree. It doesn't get easier when you are managing in a technical discipline like IT, because initially your staff expects that you as a manager know every detail about what they are doing. The best approach is not to pretend that you know it all, because you don't, and your staff will soon know that you don't as soon as you try to instruct them in areas that they know and that you don't. Instead, tell your staff where your expertise is, what you expect of them, and then let them run with the ball. Your job is to manage and facilitate the project so your staff can execute it.
Don't try to do everything yourself
New managers coming from technical disciplines sometimes have to resist the impulse to jump in and start doing actual tasks on the project that their staff should be doing. When you do this, you take away from your full-time job of managing the project. A great example I experienced firsthand in my IT career was a two-man project where the system guru was supposed to design a system and a junior programmer he was directing was supposed to code it. The guru/manager couldn't resist tweaking the code and in some cases even rewriting it, even though the code was solid enough as the junior person had originally written it. The next time project assignments came around, the last thing the junior person wanted was to be assigned to the guru again! Why? Because taking over tasks undercuts the confidence levels of your staff members and make them feel that they are being micromanaged.
Stay cool under pressure
No project is without its headwinds and its difficulties. In these times, it is important to stay cool, calm and collected. Project team members take cues from their managers. If your team sees you approach a project snag with determination and a good problem solving approach, they will, too.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.