Managing Today’s Employee

May 14, 2010

My boss and I were talking to a few developers after a team stand-up one morning, discussing the deadline pressure of a customer deliverable and the impact that some unforeseen issues were having. Since we were both developers prior to becoming managers, my boss offered our programming talents to help the team.

This offer was met with immediate laughter.

Part of this was because there were some newer employees on the team and they had never even looked at any of our code, let alone witnessing us actually programming. They also recognized that our organization has everyone stretched in one way or another, and that we were filling other roles besides traditional management. (I’m also quite sure that to some people, the visual of managers doing “real work” is a great source of amusement.)

Even though the thought of managers doing the work of those who report to them is humorous, managers are the ones who evaluate the performance of those very same employees – and no one laughs at that. The reality is that the programmers who report to me do spend far more time coding than I realistically can, unless I find away to give up sleep.

While I have spent countless hours in the past designing and coding, these days my challenge is keeping conversant and up-to-date on technology, methodologies, improving my management game, and yes – keeping up with the various projects that we have in flight and my staff’s participation and performance relative to those projects. And just for fun, I’m also acting as a product manager for the products produced in our office.

This means that my staff understands more about their work than I do. They’re the ones immersed in it day in and day out. I can keep my fingers on the pulse, but I can’t know the nitty-gritty details. How do you manage individuals who by rights should know more than you do about their work?

For a start, maybe they don’t know more than you. Maybe they are just out of college, lacking in real-world experience. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that they’ve got a several years under their belts.

A natural starting place is to talk with them about the work that performing right now.

You’ll discover if they are really enjoying what they are doing, or if there are problems lurking under the surface. The conversation shouldn’t end there, however. It’s similar to what you do when you interview people for a position. During an interview, you talk about what a candidate can do, but you also to talk about how they go about their work, right?

When I interview people, I want to understand that people have the demonstrated ability to accomplish the type of work that I am expecting of the position that I’m hiring for. This will include assessing their technical knowledge and ability. In addition, I want to determine the candidate:
  • Is a self-starter
  • Has demonstrated a desire and willingness to learn and grow 
  • Has critical thinking skills
  • Has the interpersonal and communication skills required to be a collaborative, team player.
  • Has the willingness to be a team player
  • Has confidence in their abilities and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances
  • Has the motivation and desire to produce high-quality work
These characteristics are highly desirable during the interview process, and they shouldn’t be overlooked once someone is through the door. The day-to-day management of knowledge workers like developers can and should be about how they are approaching their work, not just what they are doing.

Are your employees continuing to learn and grow? How are they planning on approaching the work that they are facing? Are they struggling in certain facets of their work? Is something de-motivating them, causing a slip in the output and quality of their work? Do they seem enthused about their current assignment? Are there – or do they anticipate – difficulties with those on their team?

Keep these characteristics in mind as you observe your employees throughout the day. Having a meaningful dialog about the work that they are going to perform will add real value in their eyes, because you are helping them to be successful by partnering with them before the fact instead of judging them after the fact.