How to lead your team during challenging times

Earning respect & crushing the "unreasonable"

Earning respect and crushing the unreasonable as a Non-Technical Manager-ThinqOutLoud

I was asked recently about how to manage multiple and different personalities by a potential client.   The client drew similarities between his days in management with a manufacturer of denim clothes with and mine managing a consulting firm.  Initially I had a tough time drawing a parallel, but as he explained more it became almost glaringly obvious.  I was also asked how I managed those personalities when project expectations are at best “unreasonable”.

He stated managing the “unreasonable” periods were the hardest.  For him this could include tight customer deadlines or a shortage in raw product.  That would cause timelines to compress and the team to become stressed. In his field he has to deal with fashion designers, textile manufacturers, retail buyers, and factory workers.  I remarked that is certainly a varied group of skills and personalities to deal with. Especially in a time of crisis.

He noted it felt the same with my scenario where I deal with analytic engineers, smooth sales pros, task masters in the form of Project Managers, stressed out IT support staff and of course “The Customer”.  I have been managing this mix of personalities for so long that I didn’t feel that it was very unique. He then countered with the resource type that was a challenge for him to manage.

He stated his most difficult relationship was the designers.  He was a supply chain manager and had experience with the the majority of the skills below him, but designers were a different breed. Designers needed a lot more care and feeding than the rest of the team. This got me thinking about my career and who challenged me.

The Non-Technical, Technical Manager

In my early days in management overseeing the technical team was challenging.  My initial teams knew that I came up the ranks on the business side of the house interacting primarily with sales and marketing. A few expressed their displeasure in working for a “non-technical manager” and often tried to trip me up during meetings.

I thought more and remembered a few things that helped me change perception and ultimately get my team to perform the “unreasonable” when necessary.  It really started with a single event.

I shared with my client this story to illustrate how I was able to change my brand perception as a non-technical manager.  I know to gain respect of any team you have to be willing to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.  I had often told my technical team that when the chips are down and we face a troubling situation they would not be left alone.  Of course as I told my team this I knew there would be skeptics. I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the bargain until we had a true emergency situation.

Then it happened: E-mail down!

Our e-mail server went down.  At the time e-mail was the main way for us to communicate with our clients.  If e-mail wasn’t working they would not be able to submit trouble tickets or receive monitoring alerts. This was a big problem! The system crashed at 6 PM and needed to be operational by the start of the next business day.

The team began to troubleshoot, but one of the engineers made a mistake and in doing so erased critical log files.  Without those logs we could not troubleshoot and basically had to rebuild.

I told my team it would be an all-nighter and the clock is ticking!

Most expected me to leave as I had already been there 10+ hours, but I knew that these guys were going to need support.  Others expected me to rip the employee that made the mistake, maybe even fire him.  That would be counterproductive, especially when the mistake was made with the best intentions.

How to walk the walk when times are “unreasonable”

I knew I couldn’t solve the issue personally, but by staying with the team I could provide the following:

  • Take over all communication to the executive team allowing them to focus on the issue and not the rhetoric.
  • Monitor the physical well being of the team.  Stress does not treat everyone equally!
  • Keep an environment of calm.  I let them know what a great job they were doing throughout the effort.
  • Keep them focused and on-task.
  • Lead them in decision making.  In times of stress rash decisions can be made.
  • Remind them their efforts are appreciated.
  • Ease their fear. In these types of situations people worry about their jobs. Let them know through actions not words, that you own the problem and the buck stops with you no matter the outcome.
  • Buy food and drinks! The work conditions are difficult enough, hunger should not be an issue.
  • Stay with your team until the problem is resolved.  Do not be the missing manager!

We solved the issue around 7:30 AM with about an hour to spare.  My team was tired so I told them to head out and get some sleep.  At this point it was now time for me to debrief with the executive team, which was going to be miserable at best.  To my surprise the team stated they wanted to stay and share the technical details to support me in that meeting.

I thanked them, but stated it is better that they go rest and get refreshed. The team left, reluctantly.  At that moment I realized I had gained the respect of the technical team. I never heard another word about my ‘non-technical” background since that event.

The “Unreasonable” becomes “Reasonable” when the pain is shared

This represents one of the biggest management principles I live by today.  I will never ask a team member to do something that I would not be willing to do myself.  I attribute most of my success as a leader to being there for my team when the situation is difficult.

After that event I worked to educate myself technically.  I wanted to better speak in my team’s language and get my hands dirty when necessary. Putting effort into your own self-development will get noticed by your team. But only if you are genuine in your desire to be there for them and truly lead when the chips are down.

For me this situation reinforced my personal leadership brand. I was more confident knowing when things get “unreasonable” my team would step up and shine! Fair to say and ugly situation became a win-win for all.

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