Do you think managers need to know their industry?

Many years ago, I was required to take a leadership and management class. Pretty much all I remember from it was learning Mazlow’s hierarchy and hearing the assertion that a manager doesn’t have to know anything about the business/industry being managed, since his/her job is to manage the people. (I recognized early on that I sucked as a manager, and I avoided any opportunities to follow that path. Some of us are born to be minions.)

On one level, I suppose I can agree with that - people are people, right? But in my gut, I felt like the assertion was flawed. A person who’s a great manager at a dairy won’t necessarily be a great manager in a manufacturing plant, nor could you expect a bank manager to be successful at managing a restaurant, could you?

I think you need to know the industry and the people who work in it to manage successfully. One specific data point was when I worked at an aircraft overhaul depot and our department manager was hired away from a locomotive manufacturing facility. The man tried to apply what he’d done with trains to airplanes and he refused to listen to the people who knew the peculiarities of working on aircraft. Eventually, those above him realized he was pretty close to worthless and he was shifted to a position where he couldn’t do any harm. Then again, was he a bad manager just because he was a bad manager? We have no idea how well he performed before being hired into our organization. Maybe he was incompetent from the get go?

On the other hand, my brother has been a CFO/CEO/President at various times for a hospital, an environmental firm, and a software firm. He’s a CPA with an MBA and he’s always being head-hunted, which leads me to believe his strengths lie in management.

Which brings me back to the title of this thread - do you think a manager need to know about the business he/she is managing? Do share your illustrative anecdotes.

I believe something more specific–a manager should be able to fill in for his or her direct reports without notice. Or, to put it another way, my direct supervisor should be able to do my job competently, if not quite as well as I can.

I don’t know if that can always work, based on another personal experience. My first division director was marginally incompetent as far as I’m concerned. More senior personnel there told me he was a really good engineer in his day, but he was promoted beyond his abilities. My direct boss, however, had been a marginal engineer, but he was a good engineering supervisor. I would think this doesn’t just apply to engineers.

You just contradicted yourself.
The OP asks if managers need to know their industry. Your “marginal” engineer did know his industry…maybe not well enough to be a good engineer, but well enough to supervise good engineers.

Maybe in huge organizations, there is a point high enough up where management is totally divorced from the product being produced and sold, so the manager doesn’t need to know the industry.

But in most places, an ignorant manager --who doesnt know the vocabulary of his employees and what they do all day-- will not be able to tell them what to do, or know how long it should take…which is the mark of a good manager.

At the LORAN station where I was stationed, the Commanding Officer didn’t have any electronics training and neither did the XPO, a chief Bosun’s Mate, yet we Electronics Technicians kept the equipment operating. Yet at another LORAN station I spent a week at, although the CO again didn’t have any electronics training, the XO was a Warrant Electronics Technician.

I guess one has to, um, define supervisors and managers. Supervisors may be management, but not all managers can be supervisors.

Maybe in some industries, but for the most part, I doubt it. I’ve been working in various industries for 25 years and have never known a good manager who did not have a good knowledge of the industry.

Managing people means giving them direction, helping them know what to do, and how to improve. It means managing your group to meet the overall goals of the company. All of these things, and 50 others, are very difficult to do without some industry knowledge.

One of my early jobs was at Burger King. Partway through my tenure there, they hired a lady as assistant manager who had been a manager at a sit-down restaurant.

It was a disaster. She walked in thinking that a restaurant is a restaurant. Not so. Sit-down and fast food are VERY different in some respects. She tried to tell people to do things that made no sense in a fast food context.

She lasted just 2 or 3 months.

In my industry, we need managers who know that industry. Healthcare analytics is a pretty specific set of knowledge, and if you can’t understand what your employees are doing and why, you won’t do well as a manager. And if you don’t understand the current issues in healthcare today, as seen by insurers, hospitals, physicians, and consumers, you won’t get why the industry exists.
(Using the general, nonspecific “you” here.)

I’m not sure how far up the food chain that need for knowledge goes WRT “management”. My company hired a new member of upper management who does not have a background in healthcare. This will be interesting to watch.

And in mine, you need to know the profession and the broader context. I’m an academic librarian: some institutions have hired non-librarians to run the library. At the top level, that in and of itself is not the worst thing, but someone without a library background hired at the dean/director of libraries level needs to be willing to learn some of the unique aspects (I almost said “odd shit”) that come into play. Without having that information, it’s impossible to advocate for the library effectively on campus when dealing with a lot of other academics who don’t understand how library purchasing, accessing and so on work.

But you also need to understand the higher education landscape to be effective at that level.

You don’t have to be able to do everything that everyone in the library does - but you do need to understand the overall industry that we operate in, both from below and above, or you won’t be able to communicate effectively with staff or with those above you.

Isn’t this the classic “B-School” problem?
Company A buys Company B, fires all the managers, and installs their own guys, who know nothing about the business or the companies’ situation.

Company A is then flabbergasted when their new subsidiary crashes and burns…

That’s a nice idea, but not practical in many cases, for example when the team is mulidisciplinary. I know enough about software design to talk and plan coherently with my web dev, but I don’t have his level of skill in actual coding (that’s why I hired him). Same is true of my technicians, my analysts etc. I understand what they do, but not all of how they do it.

There are some major corporations that believe smart people can do anything. It just amazes me that they put so little stock in actual industry expertise and experience, as well as corporate knowledge.

Typical example is put a seasoned manager in charge of sales to check off on their leadership ladder requirements. These folks have never carried a bag, don’t understand when the customer is complaining as a negotiating tool, haven’t seen sales cycles, never experienced an economic cycle or stock market crash, etc. At best, the sales teams limp along despite the manager. At worst, the sales manager drives the team off a cliff.

There are the exceptional individuals that make great professional managers, can lead teams, come in cold and sound like a seasoned pro in a month, know how to extract the best from their teams and let them run. BUT this is very rare.

Or a classic MBA graduate “I can do that, what is it?”

To some extent, it’ll depend on what is expected from the manager. If it’s simple directing traffic around the team, keeping up with assignments, etc… and if they have a good knowledgeable person they can rely on for industry details, then they may be able to get away with not knowing things themselves.

I’ve rarely seen that work. I was at a startup company a few years ago that brought in a high level executive from a completely different industry. He didn’t understand our market, but insisted that we do things the way he had seen them done in his previous industry. Almost the entire engineering staff ended up quitting, and the company is now out of business.

The former locomotive industry manager I mentioned in the OP had that kind of mind set, sort of. I was briefing him on a project I was working and I mentioned I needed to consult with our Safety Engineers. His response: “You’re an engineer - you can figure it out for yourself!”

I was working as a Mechanical Engineer but my degree was Aero Engineering. Those two are close enough that in the particular job, they were interchangeable. However, the safety engineers had a completely different expertise which included knowledge of OSHA regulations, which is what I needed them for. How stupid would it have been to waste my time trying to learn something when the resources were a couple of doors away? Would he have expected me to figure out an electrical engineer’s job also?

Or maybe I’m just not smart enough. :smack:

Lsura --exactly!

Mangetout, I agree that if a team is multidisciplinary, the manager doesn’t need to be able to do everyone’s jobs. The manager should undestand those jobs, though. My boss’s boss (who I work closely with) doesn’t know the ins and outs of billing and medical policies, but he understands the concepts. I often am paired up with a programmer to find out if a treatment or service provides a statistical benefit in X period of time. I’m not a programmer, but know enough SQL to be able to discuss what we’re trying to do. They aren’t health care analysts, but know enough of the business to understand what I’m saying. (Then we give the whole thing to the statisticians, who are just weird…)
(I kid, I kid.)

oh, dear. :smack: Maybe this was some form of managerial, “you can do anything you want!” praise-speak?

Depends on how far down a manager is in the hierarchy. A front-line manager has to be knowledgable enough to know what a good work product looks like and what bad looks like. If they don’t have the expertise to reliably make these determinations, then fuck ups are more likely to occur. Incompetent subordinates will slip under the radar and competent ones will stop seeing the boss as a credible authority.

An executive should be able to depend on middle management to catch fuck ups, so their technical proficiency is less important. But if they are hiring officials, they have to be knowledgable enough about the technical side to recruit and hire managers with the right technical skills. A senior leader who is complete stranger to the industry won’t know how to staff to ensure the best quality product. And if they are incompetent leaders, they won’t have the vision to know what defines quality either.

But industry knowledge can come over time. A good manager will learn quickly what they need to learn to excel, unless the learning curve is so steep that only an internal hire could master it.

I was a manager who came up through the ranks. I don’t see how you can competently manage people without having some understanding of the jobs they’re doing.

Imagine you’re managing in some company where you don’t understand the product and two subordinates come to you with a disagreement. One of them says they should be using Process A and the other says they should be using Process B. If you don’t have any knowledge of how the processes work, what do you base your decision on? Which of the subordinates you like better?

A lot of these bad outside manager stories just sound like bad manager full stop stories to me. Management is hard enough that most managers fail in some spectacular way or another and it’s rare to find objectively good managers anywhere.

Empirically, it seems like it can work occasionally but not commonly. Amazon, for example, is open to recruiting non-technical managers to manage. One of my Amazon friends told me that the best manager they ever had had no software experience whatsoever and used to manage prisons of all things before they arrived at Amazon. On the other hand, Google strongly prefers technical expertise in all of their management, with the upside that managers are highly hands on and understanding but the downside that many are perhaps constitutionally less suited to management and muddle along and cause damage via poor skills.

On top of this, if you end up in management long enough, you almost always are forced to manage units you’re unfamiliar with. Perhaps the industry has changed beneath you and your experience shipping boxed software now isn’t relevant now that cloud deployment is the norm. Or perhaps your departmental scope increases and you’re now forced to manage sales and marketing people for your department when you previously only dealt with product. Most people stumble at this step and get stuck via Parkinson’s Law but all great managers manage to transcend this phase and are forced to manage at a level far more abstract than they are comfortable with.

The ideal outcome is that you mediate between the two subordinates and help them both come to a mutually agreeable decision. If two people disagree, it’s because their view of the world is different, either as it is or as it should be. Disagreements are an opportunity for both people to grow as they learn to see the world from a different perspective and, hopefully, come to consensus. A good manager can mediate while not knowing the specifics and can sometimes benefit specifically because they don’t know or care about the specifics.

However, sometimes this is either infeasible or impractical and the manager just needs to assert authority and make a decision. In this case, you look at:

a) What are the pros and cons of each process according to each subordinate, then verifying the accuracy of the statements with other outside, trusted parties,
b) which process helps you achieve high level business goals that the company has set,
c) which process helps you achieve your own high level personal goals for advancement, regardless of whether it’s beneficial to the company (aka: Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM)
d) which employee has traditionally had a reputation for delivering on what they promised and gained your trust and
e) gut level decision making honed on experience.

Based on the NY Times article, that seemed like very appropriate management experience for Amazon.