#9 Your Only Tool Is…

by Steven Cerri on October 9, 2006


Good evening!

Today I conducted a training class at a customer site. The topic focused on being a technical individual contributor and a technical manager at the same time. This is typically what happens when a technical person is promoted to management of a small team or a small project. In most cases a technical person is simultaneously a part-time technical individual contributor and a part-time technical manager.

During the class a discussion occurred about the tools that managers can use to do their job. When I asked the class what the most important tool was at the disposal of a manager, I got several answers, including, “listening” and “the people”. I have always taken the position that the only tool of real significance that a technical manager has is “communication”.

There is no doubt that listening skills are important. There is no doubt that the people on the team are important. There is no doubt that there are other “tools” that are important as well. But I believe that all of them rely, at their foundation, on communication to be effective. Listening is about communication. People are motivated and inspired by communication. Everything we do as managers comes down to one fundamental capability, communication.

So even hire and fire authority doesn’t amount to much in the final analysis. The power and impact of hire and fire authority are only transmitted through communication. And so, ultimately, communication is the only tool that any technical professional or technical manager has to do their job.

Many technical professionals who become even part-time managers worry that if they don’t have hire and fire authority over people they won’t be able to manage them. The typical new manager has often not cultivated the communication skills necessary to be successful. Rather they are often looking for their “authority” to help make their management function easier.

Certainly, hire and fire authority makes management seem easier. However, throughout my career, I would guess that only half the time did I have hire and fire authority over the people who I needed to work with. I would guess that half the time I got my projects done by utilizing people who worked with me only because they wanted to and were willing to help me out. Even as a product manager, I relied on departments and people within those departments over whom I had no real authority. They put my project tasks in their schedules as they saw fit. I got my tasks moved to the front of the task list only because they wanted to help me get my product out the door.

This is the difference between formal and informal authority. Formal authority is authority that is given to you by your position, your title. It is less related to you as a person, and more related to your position. Formal authority is clearly tied to the formal organizational structure.

Informal authority is a function of your personality and your force of will. Informal authority is given to you by who you are and not by what your title is. If your informal authority is high, people work with you because they want to. They assist you because they want to. Informal authority is a function of your ability to build positive relationships with people. In my career, even when I had formal authority over people, I used it very sparingly. I would rather motivate people through informal authority than through formal authority even in those cases where I had the formal authority.

So as a technical professional or a technical manager, it is important to understand that the power of your communication, the power of your ability to communicate well and effectively, the power to use communication at the level of informal authority to motivate people, is most important to your success.

Motivating people through hire and fire authority has an underlying motivational process that is based on fear. Motivating people through a desire to assist you is motivating them through a willingness and desire to cooperate. I’ll take motivating people to want to assist me over motivating people to fear me any day.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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