posted 21 Jun 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 9
Game, set, match
Everything I ever really needed to know about managing, I learnt from being a tennis captain – says Christian Young
As knowledge management (KM) professionals, it’s easy to get so caught up in the design of strategies, systems, processes, taxonomies and a host of other tasks associated with managing knowledge-based activity and resources. In this way, the term ‘manager’ in KM is used more often as a verb than a noun. But, regardless of whether you are the sole KM resource in your organisation or part of a team, it should be both. An upper case ‘Knowledge Manager’ is a change agent; a lower case ‘knowledge manager’ is a functionary. It may seem like semantics, but how we are perceived (by others and ourselves) has a tremendous affect on how we perform, what we feel capable of achieving and what we actually accomplish. A manager has influence and authority. Placing a stronger emphasis on the management aspect of KM is critical to promoting a sense of empowerment among KM professionals.
Despite our designation, knowledge managers are not exclusively managing knowledge and information (even though that’s clearly a responsibility of the job). We are also in the business of managing relationships that influence how information is shared; how shared information becomes (and generates) knowledge; and how the combination of relationships, knowledge, and information can be leveraged for a variety of purposes. And if you’re not, then you should be!
As Dr Gerard Blair writes in his article, ‘What Makes A Great Manager’: “When you become a manager, you gain control over your own work; not all of it, but some of it. You can change things. You can do things differently. You actually have the authority to make a huge impact upon the way in which your staff works. You can shape your own work environment.”1
Although I’ve learned how supremely easy it is to be a terrible leader throughout my seven years as a knowledge manager, being the captain of a tennis team for nearly the same length of time has provided me with some of my most invaluable insights into what it takes to be a great manager. Not that I would ever deign to call myself a ‘great manager’ – that’s like describing oneself as ‘hot’ or being a ‘great catch’ (conceited much?!).
Of course, it goes without saying, that how each of us achieves our KM goals will vary greatly, but principles of good management are universal and an important factor in the success of KM – if not the strategy itself, then at least the person or people guiding the strategy.
Everything I ever really needed to know about managing I learned from being a tennis captain. Here are some of the key lessons:
You can post messages on the team management site (which everyone knows about because you badgered them to log on and set up a profile); send out the most carefully constructed, catchy, concise and informative e-mails known to mankind (twice); and send a supporting text message, for good measure – and it’s still a sure bet that the night before your match more than one person will be clueless as to whether or not they’re playing, when and where, and what food contribution they’re meant to bring.
In personal matters, over-communication may be relationship suicide, but in tennis and business it’s better to overdo it than get caught with your pants down. The trick is to understand the variety of ways you have access to your people and treat each critical communiqué as all out war. Or, you could pull a ‘Miranda Priestly’2 and just have everyone be deathly afraid of you and hanging on your every word. Yeah, that works too.
Ironically, while few want the responsibility of leadership (even less so once they realise what the work involves), almost everyone wants to tell you how to do your job. Often, it may seem as if you spend more time managing criticism than anything else.
While being a great manager involves eliciting and considering feedback, it’s important to remember that, ultimately, the buck stops with you and your level of accountability is the highest of your team. So, set boundaries and heed your own counsel (unless you have a poor track record of making good decisions, then don’t). And, when able, always make leadership decisions that minimise your personal levels of stress and aggravation. Don’t go putting yourself out unnecessarily; masochism is so 1980s.
A good vision is contagious. I have a vision that one day my team will not only be recognised for the outstanding food and hospitality we offer our opponents, but will take the State championship as well. (Hopefully, sometime before Hell’s hotly anticipated freezing over.) In the meantime, I remain content with the reputation that my team has acquired as fun-loving, amiable, and fantastic hosts! Teams in other divisions talk about us and players who move on to other teams take that vision with them. In business, that kind of buy-in is priceless. The key is to keep it simple, make it achievable, and, most importantly, believe in it yourself!
Admittedly, league tennis has done wonders for my planning skills. As soon as one season begins, you have to begin planning for the next. As a result, you come to realise that planning is an ongoing, interconnected process that takes place beneath the umbrella of your overall vision for the team. While your team members are focused on the very next match they are going to play, as a captain (and a manager) you have to be able to see both the details and the bigger picture.
Daunting, to be sure but, blessedly, it can all be learned – which is good, because the workplace is a significantly less-forgiving environment to learn some lessons.
Thankfully, IRB [Institutional Review board] approval isn’t necessary to be a tennis captain because I’m certain I’d have appeared before a tribunal by now. Trying to understand and develop strategies in response to the sundry motivations of diverse players on any team – work or play – is enough to drive any captain or manager bonkers. However, if I’ve learned anything about motivation, it’s that you begin by recruiting team players who have a good attitude, from the start. And, you must also be willing to let go of people with bad attitudes – regardless of performance. As unappealing as that might sound, you aren’t doing yourself any favours in the long run by indulging the whims of divas and ‘Bad Andys’. Beyond that, focus on developing people into their potential; the more success they lay claim to, the more they want and that can be priceless motivation.
“What’s the use of running if you are not on the right road?” – German proverb
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit (modestly, of course) that I’m fortunate to be something of a natural strategist. While my duties as a tennis captain have benefitted from this skill, it is my on-court time that has helped to sharpen it.
During a match, too many players (even some of mine) enter into play with ‘plan A’ and when that falls apart so does their game. Unsurprisingly, this happens with business strategies all the time. Great managers cultivate the ability to continuously develop strategies – from ‘plan A’ to ‘plan AAA’ – re-evaluating options and adopting new approaches as needed and on-the-fly, for the duration of a project, engagement… or match.
Of course, sometimes you just get out-played. It happens. But, whether in tennis or business, having a quick mind and being able to keep your wits about you in stressful situations is what keeps you one step ahead in the game.
Christian Young is an independent KM strategist and blogger based in Atlanta, US. He can be contacted at email@example.com. To read Christian’s blog, visit http:kmreflectionsblogspot.com
Blair, Dr Gerald., ‘What Makes a Great Manager’, can be accessed at: http://www.see.ed.ac.uk/~gerard/Management/art9.html
Character immortalised by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel, The Devil Wears Prada