Do you have to know the job to lead it?

Once upon a time, I though that a good manager had to KNOW the job in which they were leading others, in order to be effective. Time has shown me many times that, while sometimes it helps, this is not the case.

One of my best managers had never led engineers before taking on my team. Moreover, he was not of the technical world – he had worked his way up through the company in Security (starting as uniformed security), maintenance, and production, before taking on my team. It was an experience for all of us, to say the least.

All of that aside, he was, as I said, one of the best managers I had the pleasure of working for. He took JOY in seeing the engineers geek out and laugh at nerdy jokes, even if he didn’t understand what we thought was so funny. He found it hilarious that most laypersons WOULDN’T understand what we were laughing at.

What I learned from this man is that you need to trust those you have put in place. He had faith in what we said we needed to do. He may not have had the vision we did, but he knew to be a resource for us to get the job done. When we said we needed to build a new test facility, he went to bat to get the capital, and to find a place to put it. A half-million dollars in materials and construction later, we had the biggest EMI test chamber the company had ever constructed, and a secure space surrounding it, not to mention two new office areas and a kitchenette with a coffee pot and refrigerator. We tried for a popcorn machine and private bathroom, but they thought that we were pushing the envelope with those things.

In addition, this man knew how to motivate people. I learned that, while raises and bonuses are the primary drivers, small trinkets that show the manager’s appreciation for his employees go a long way. In more than one staff meeting, he would bring in 10 or 20 dollars worth of whatever trinkets the company store had on clearance, and throw them around when people answered questions or achieved something. He had a habit of “firing” people (in a Donald Trump-esque manner – “The Apprentice” was still popular at the time, but it was all in fun), and he had some coarse language from time to time (he had a very blue collar background) – but he was a favorite among the engineers because he was approachable, he would listen, he would use his resources to get things done, and he would show appreciation whenever he could.

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