Leading When You’re Short on Technical Know-How

If you entered the industry with a lot of business acumen but room to grow in the plumbing trade itself, being in a leadership position can be difficult. But it’s still possible to gain the respect of your employees.
Leading When You’re Short on Technical Know-How
Anja Smith

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My background is in business — design, marketing, community relations, business development. They’re all important to running a business of any kind. These roles are in my comfort zone. Plumbing, on the other hand, is not. It is a trade I am learning as I go, but my practical knowledge is still limited. Nevertheless, I find myself in a leadership position at a fast-growing plumbing company.

It is a strange thing to run a plumbing company. It requires a marriage of technical expertise and business know-how. Maybe that is why, although the barriers to entry are relatively low in our industry, so few succeed.

In our organization, we’ve solved this by utilizing a team of people and leveraging their different skill sets at the leadership level. It’s a good thing at least one of us (not me!) is the technical leader too, because a recent study outlined in the Harvard Business Review shows a direct correlation between employee job satisfaction and the technical ability of the boss.

The results of this study are not shocking. The fact that people prefer to be led by folks who know what the heck they are doing is not a new idea. The ideal boss is someone who understands your job deeply, because they could — or have — done it.

I believe that at the core of this theme lies the undeniable truth that respect can’t be given and instead has to be earned. It’s pretty hard to respect someone who tries to tell you how to do a job that they themselves don’t really know how to do.

So what does this mean for those of us who have to lead from the outside? While I am not the technical leader in our organization, I am a leader. Being a small operation, roles are sometimes shared and hats fit on multiple heads. It is not uncommon for me to find myself giving direction to a plumber whose job I cannot yet do. It is uncomfortable at times, but I believe that there is a right way to do it.

Doing it right, in my book, means that the technical workers out in the field trust me, that I trust them, and that there is a level of confidence that the work is completed correctly. I’ve not always gotten that right. I’ve made mistakes along the way. There have been moments of tension and frustration, on both sides.

After a while though, I figured a few key things out. Here is my best advice for managing from the outside:

1. Admit what you don’t know.

Don’t try to be the smartest person in the room. Tradesmen get enough disrespect from the public-at-large. Don’t add insult to injury. If the question or decision is of a technical nature, create an open dialogue.

You have to be willing to occasionally answer the “what do I do” question with deference. Be willing to say that you aren’t sure, that you’ve never encountered the situation before, and ask for ideas. Crowd-source them from the entire team if you have to.

One thing that seems to be universally true of every plumber I’ve met is that they love to explain stuff. So show a natural curiosity about their work and ask good questions that show you are trying to understand.

You cannot lead from a place of fear. If you are worried that they are going to “find you out” or think less of you for not knowing something, chances are they will. It is only confident people that will admit ignorance and be open to learning something new.

2. Let your light shine.

Chances are, if you find yourself leading from a non-technical perspective, it is because you solve some business need not available on the technical team. Keeping a tight schedule, costs down, revenue high, and customer satisfaction shining all takes a business mind. Some companies are lucky enough to find that in a technical team member and promote from within. Others have to get more creative.

If you are a non-technical leader, it is because you bring something else to the table. Let that shine. Don’t be a know-it-all about it, but make sure your team understands the value you bring to the table. If they can’t see what you are good at, they can only focus on what you aren’t.

Weigh decisions with what you know about the business side, while listening, asking good questions, and understanding the side of the technician or plumber dealing with the problem in the field.

3. Make an effort.

The bottom line is that if you want to succeed long-term in this industry, you need to understand it. You need to learn at least the basics. If you are around long enough you’ll pick some up by osmosis. After a few months, you can learn to diagnose issues, recognize common problems, and throw around terminologies with the best of them. But that doesn’t make you a plumber. It doesn’t mean that you have technical expertise. Roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty when you can. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. That effort goes a long way.

Your team can forgive you for not knowing everything when you start — especially if you are honest about it. But they won’t forgive you for not even trying. The people you are leading need to have confidence that you are at least trying to understand their day-to-day concerns, struggles, and wins.

These three factors together can build two-way trust. In order for you to manage a technical field team effectively, you need to have their backs. You need to know their strengths and weaknesses, play to each effectively, and know when to back them up versus reprimand them. You have to know when they need training, support, and a second set of hands. If you don’t have an open dialogue with them, confidence in your own skills and abilities, and a basic understanding of their reality you can’t be the boss they need you to be.

It is easy to see, once you start down this road, why employees managed by a non-technical manager could quickly become unhappy. Being placed in this type of leadership role certainly comes with a certain set of challenges. But, done well, you can cut through the unease and have a foot in both worlds — business and plumbing.

About the author: Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja@acpupstate.com.


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