Expertise in One Thing Does Not a Manager Make

Management ExpertiseAt my day job, they love me. After five years of writing Frankly Curious at a very intense level, I did learn a lot about professional writing. That’s something that people don’t usually understand: being a professional writer doesn’t mean you are necessarily all that good in what people think of as writing. But it does mean you have expertise in certain aspects of content creation. For example, you could tell me to write a thousand words about any subject at all, and I would have a publishable article for you within about four hours. I’m kind of like a robot. They can plug me into any assignment and it will get done.

To give you an example, back in late December, I had to write an article about OAuth. I had no idea what it was, but I did the research, wrote the article, and it was published. By that point, I was both writer and editor, so it wasn’t even much checked by my main supervisor (if that’s the right word). But by the end of January, I couldn’t even remember what OAuth was. I remembered having written an article about it, but I couldn’t tell you want it was. So I went back and read what I had written and it was a perfectly fine piece of professional writing. (For the record: OAuth is a really cool thing!)

I don’t doubt that I am able to do all of this. But it’s clear that expertise in one area doesn’t imply expertise in another.

So I’m good at my job. I have the kind of expertise that employers are desperate for. And so last Wednesday, I had a Skype call with what I refer to as the two Grand Poobahs of Quality Nonsense: Toni and Richard. I mean that in the kindest sense. They are both among the smartest and most creative people I have ever known — much less worked with. And they decided that I should take over the management of our freelance writers. This is mostly because Toni has far too much other work to do, and Richard is always coming up with new things to do. I’m going along with it because it’s what they want. But I’m skeptical.

Expertise in Writing! Expertise in Managing?!

It’s true that I have much expertise in writing and editing the work that I’ve been given control over. But this kind of expertise does not translate into expertise in managing a bunch of writers. And it isn’t just a matter of my getting work done. There are a bunch of freelance writers who need to work to get paid. I need to make sure that they are kept busy so that they can pay their rent and feed their kids and whatnot. It’s daunting. And although I’ve managed people before, it has never been like this. What I’ve done before I would call more “overseeing.” For example, I once managed seven Romanian programmers. But that mostly meant that I interacted with one of them about the general work that needed to be done. He then assigned tasks.

I don’t doubt that I am able to do all of this. But it’s clear that expertise in one area doesn’t imply expertise in another. My abilities as a professional writer came as a result of thousands of hours of work. My ability to manage these writers will doubtless be helped by my writing and editing experience. But mostly, I will be dependent upon being generally smart and having a decent understanding of basic management. And in a perfect world, I probably wouldn’t be put in this position. There are probably people who are much worse writers than I am who would be far better than I will be at this.

But I hope that through a combination of my current skills, some time to learn, and lots of understanding on the part of the Grand Poobahs and the writers I can reach an acceptable level of expertise. But that sure isn’t a given.

11 thoughts on “Expertise in One Thing Does Not a Manager Make

    • No! They are actually a good group. The three writers I complained about over the last year all got fired. (I have been assured it wasn’t me. But I do blame myself. They were marginal and my constant complaining was kind of the last straw.) All the remaining writers are dependable professionals. And one is even kind of a big deal freelancer. But there is a lot of pressure of me right now.

  1. My guess is it’ll be six of one and half-dozen of the other. No manager deals well with every personality or learning style. (The most successful are probably fear-inspiring tyrants; anyone who doesn’t respond to their supervision just quits, so the manager can claim a 100% success rate.)

    In training others, I have only one approach which has ever worked for me; modeling. I try and be the best professional I can be. Others who impressed me with their competence and support of my curiosity to learn more made me want to be like them. I try to act like that. And, maybe 15% of the time, I think I’ve succeeded.

    I run into trouble with people who find themselves angry that our employer doesn’t respect their job duties enough or pay them what they deserve. I can’t counter this. My employer does not respect my efforts or pay me enough. So I’m stuck in a rut of saying, “yes, our employer is ass, yet out of self-respect and respect for the disabled adults we serve, you should work hard to be as proficient as you can. Consider it a personal challenge to get good at something, for its own sake.”

    Can you blame any trainee for responding “bite my shiny metal ass”?

    So, 85% of the time, I am a terrible trainer/manager. Once in a blue moon, I’m quite good at it. I never criticize honest failures, and I never treat anyone as stupid. Sometimes, this works.

    Although one time, I really did have to deal with a struggling learner. This is out of, maybe, 75 people I’ve trained.

    We have these vans, right, which have wheelchair lifts. And the lifts are custom additions to the vans, they’re not part of what the car manufacturers included. They tend to have little power-on buttons which are separately wired from the normal car gizmos, the radio or lights or what-not. If you leave the lights on, the car will bing bells at you. You can’t leave the radio on unless you put the ignition key in a very tricky position. It’s virtually impossible to leave these battery-draining things on by accident.

    But you can leave the wheelchair ramp on by accident, quite easily, as it’s a custom add-on. And it will suck the battery dry. There was one struggling learner who kept doing this again and again. Usually, this happens in the garage of the group home where the van is kept, and a paid maintenance expert charges it back up again.

    One time, though, this struggling learner let the battery die at a medical clinic. In the dead of winter, with disabled people needing a ride home. So I had to go drive there, using a borrowed vehicle, to jumpstart that van. I don’t blame anyone for not knowing how to jumpstart a battery; if you’ve never done it before, it’s intimidating.

    Here’s the part I blame the struggling learner for.

    I hooked the jumper cables to the van’s dead battery. As I’m walking back to my borrowed vehicle, with the jumper cables in my hands, the struggling learner leans out the driver’s side window and asks, “do I try and start the engine now?”

    I hadn’t hooked up the other ends of the jumper cables to any part of my borrowed vehicle. I hadn’t even opened the hood of that borrowed vehicle. The jumper cables were in my hands.

    As if, I was Electro-Man, and could start the dead van battery with . . . um, my palm power?

    If someone’s that damaged, there ain’t a lot you can do.

    • That’s an amusing story. It would make a good short story.

      I’m not teaching people anything. I am working with one writer to do certain things differently so that he doesn’t annoy me. But overall, I’m really impressed with the group. The only problem is that freelancers do a lot of work fast. And quality can slip. They have to be reminded. But at least a couple of these writers are as good as I am. And the rest are near. Part of my job is to be a cheerleader. We pay reasonably well, but there are a lot of places to work for freelancers who can write technical and business stuff. And happy writers create better content. But I’m now in charge of four ongoing, big projects. Ugh.

  2. I’m certainly no expert, but after 12+ years of leading and managing an unpaid workforce (volunteers) in a stressful healthcare environment, I like to think I’ve learned a few things about motivating people. Since my staff doesn’t receive a paycheck, I’ve had to be innovative about things like retention and how to get the best out of people. Try having to sit down with a revered, unpaid volunteer who has been around for 20+ years and have a talk about performance issues–not for the faint of heart. Try having to fire a volunteer. Not fun. Knowing what I know about you, Frank, I think you’re going to be just fine. Better than fine, actually. You’re a natural. You genuinely care about and respect people and have their best interests at heart. That’s the most important thing. Everything else is details and a few communication techniques that you can be trained in. (“Crucial Conversations” is a good class–and there is a book and videos I can send you if gets to that point.)

    • Thanks. That’s very nice of you to say. Thus far, they all seem to like how much attention I’m showing them, because I’m taking the work off someone who was doing way too many other things. And as I said: they’re all professionals. I know they have a lot they can teach me. Also: I’ve done all the stuff they are doing, and I know how hard some of it is. Part of the stress is that I feel I both have to get work done and I have to make sure that they have enough work to do. But it’s been easy thus far because the work has been good. The hard part will be when I have to tell them that the quality is slipping. And I know it will happen, because it happens to us all. And some of the work is repetitive — it’s like you are writing theme and variations, and that’s hard to do. But I’m trying to keep everyone with a mix of things so it stays interesting and then hopefully throw them occasional things that will stretch them.

      It’s funny, since I started working here, I had gotten really down on writers. But over the last couple of days, I realized that was all about the people who aren’t working here anymore. I’m getting stuff from them and it requires very little editing — even on the hard stuff. So I’m feeling pretty good right now. But I really appreciate your confidence in me.

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