How To Manage Team Members Who Know More And Have More Experience

One of the most frequent questions from new managers I work with is "How do I manage team members who are more experienced and know more than me?" 


This question arises from the outdated notion that, in order to lead a team, you have to know more, have achieved more, and in many ways be clearly superior to everyone else in the team. And, unless you are the owner's son, you only earn the right to lead by putting in the required years, learning everything that there is to learn.

While that model (arguably) worked in the industrial age, it has become irrelevant in today's context. The complexity and fluid boundaries of modern organizations, rapidly evolving business models, knowledge intensive nature of work, the exponential growth of information, and technology innovations have made many such notions about managing others less relevant, if not completely worthless.

Yet, this myth persists, and new managers, especially in the more mature sectors of the economy, often struggle with this question. Here are a few suggestions, based on what has worked for me and some of my clients:

1. Set Clear Expectations

While setting clear expectations is important for all managers, it can be especially useful when you are leading a team with people who know more than you do, and are more skilled at what they do.

In this situation, you cannot rely on your knowledge or experience to allocate work appropriately, set goals, intervene when there is a problem or conflict, evaluate and reward performance, etc.

Agreeing on clear and measurable outcomes, adopting a set of data backed performance standards, making individual and group performance visible through dashboards and scorecards, monitoring frequently and effectively, and holding people accountable for what they commit to, are all useful elements of a process driven approach to managing team performance, which allows the manager to get the best out of his or her people.

2. Ask The Right questions

I learnt from one of my early mentors, that as a leader, asking the right questions was more important than knowing the answers. From him, and subsequently a number of other outstanding managers, I saw that it was easy to manage, and evaluate any team member's performance, even if I knew next to nothing about their area of expertise- as long as I knew the right questions to ask them.

But how do you know what questions to ask? Some obvious sources are your supervisor, your predecessor, a peer in a similar role, or a mentor. However, there is an even easier way - you could ask your team member(s) to come up with the most relevant questions that they want you to ask them when evaluating their performance.

If you put in a little effort, and use a couple of different sources to come up with, and validate these questions, you set yourself up for success in managing a high performing team.

3. Give Regular Feedback

A young manager I work with, recently mentioned that one of her team members was often correcting her and punching holes in her arguments, in the presence of her supervisor, and other senior stakeholders.

My client was concerned that this was negatively affecting her credibility with these stakeholders.

"Have you given him feedback in this regard?", I asked

"No. I tried speaking to him about this once, and he said that it was not his intention, and we moved to other topics"

Well, it seemed to me that she hadn't moved on. It was something that she resented, and was likely affecting her relationship with this team member.

Which is completely avoidable - because, rather than keep it bottled inside, and then reacting excessively once her patience wore thin, or her stakeholders actually questioned her credibility, she could provide timely feedback. And this would ensure the team member was absolutely clear that she did not appreciate this, and that he ought to stop doing it.

"What if he doesn't like it? He is very senior, and a very important member of my team"

"All the more reason you address it early - before it becomes a significant issue for you.."

Don't let seniority, or perceived importance, or "what will he think" stop you from giving someone feedback. Also, give feedback immediately and regularly, so that it doesn't develop into a major issue

Not comfortable delivering corrective feedback? Here's an article you might find useful : How To Comfortably Deliver Negative Feedback 

4. Ask For Feedback

As a manager, while it is important that your people hear what you have to say, it is equally important that you hear what they have to say to you. And when you are leading people who know more than you, or are more experienced than you, it is even more important that they feel heard and valued.

Ask for feedback regularly. Make it part of your weekly team meeting, and part of your 1-on-1s. Also, make it easy for people to walk up to you and give you feedback in the moment.

Ensure that you receive feedback in the right way. Check this out: How To Receive Feedback The Right Way

5. Delegate. Don't Abdicate

Two of the most common mistakes that less experienced managers make when it comes to delegation are (1) not delegating enough and (2) overdoing it.

The impact of not delegating enough manifests quickly (most often showing up the manager as a bottle-neck).

The symptoms of over-delegation (or abdication of authority) are less easy to spot - if the team has a lot of very experienced people. The consequences of abdication of authority by the manager can also be serious - inconsistent decisions, tardy application of policies, excessive internal competition, local optimization, short term thinking to name a few.

Over-delegation can also result in the manager's authority being eroded, and the manager being seen as a mere figurehead by team members, as well as stakeholders.

As a manager, it is important you get delegation right. Both under-delegation, and abdication can significantly impact your effectiveness, credibility, and eventually your growth within the organization.

6. Don't Set Out To Prove Anything

A common trap that managers leading more experienced teams fall into, is the idea that they need to "prove themselves" to win the team's trust and respect.

While your expertise and track record of "doing" can enhance your credibility with your team, remember that you were chosen over others for your ability to deliver through others.

And as you rise in the organization, the increasing breadth and diversity of required skill sets will make it increasingly difficult for you to know the nuts and bolts of what your team delivers.

What is expected from you as a manager, is not that you become knowledgeable in every aspect of what your team does; rather, it is expected that you learn to be comfortable with "not knowing", and deliver superior results by leveraging the collective knowledge an experience of your team.

Managing a team of people who know more and have more experience than you, need not be difficult and stressful. If you set clear expectations, ask the right questions, give and seek feedback regularly, delegate appropriately, and avoid falling into the trap of "proving yourself", you can manage and deliver effectively through every member of your team - even when they are senior to you.

Questions for Reflection

Do you have experience of leading people who know more and are more experienced than you? What was your approach in managing them and delivering through them?

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Narayan Kamath

I'm a Leadership Coach and Mentor. I help successful leaders take their leadership to the next level. My mission is to make positive and significant impact in the lives of at least 100,000 people by 2020 - by helping them unleash their true potential to achieve greater success and fulfilment - at work, and in life.

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