How to manage outside of your comfort zone

15 July 2019 -

Trekking up mountainMatt Carr FCMI CMgr, the 2019 Chartered Manager of the year, took on an ambitious project to build and launch a school in Shanghai, with a 10-month hard deadline. Knowing nothing about schools, Carr relied on his capabilities as a Chartered Manager to see it through.

Matt Carr was ready for a big change in his life. He’d been living in a small village in Yorkshire and working as an operations director for the past seven years and was looking for a challenging new management role. He’d worked in Asia when he was younger, and wanted to move back. He also wanted to work in education. A quick search for jobs that met those criteria, and he found the ideal one.

Dulwich College International (DCI) was looking for a project manager to get a new school up and running in Shanghai. The role involved building the school; creating the systems, processes and facilities; hiring all of the staff; and promoting the school to families in the local area. Not only that, but there was little infrastructure near the site. The school needed to be ready for pupils to arrive in 10 months’ time.

“I never take a job that I think is easy,” says Carr. “I take the one that scares me a little bit, that I think I might fail at. I think that gives me the fire to get out of bed in the morning.”

Here’s how he made it work.

Learn constantly

Carr knew nothing at all about schools – he’d last set foot in one about 30 years previously, when he was a student himself. He was going to have to learn as he went. Members should be able to reflect on their own capabilities and behaviours using justifiable criteria and use feedback to adapt their learning and development. Carr used several sources to make sure this happened.

There was a lot of expertise within DCI itself, but most of the stakeholders were too busy to talk. “I doorstopped them, took them for coffee. Even in casual conversations I had a goal and an outcome,” Says Carr.

He spent a lot of time in schools looking at how they work. “I’d make notes – ‘oh yeah, we need a photocopier!’” He also consulted with specialists: “How do you fit out a science lab when you know nothing about science? I needed to speak to others to make sure we got the right equipment.”

Hire a great team – and keep them very close

When managing outside your comfort zone, you must be able to assess current and future team abilities, then hire and develop staff accordingly. Carr identified that he would need a team of specialists in order to fill in some of the knowledge gaps on the project. The first person Carr hired was an HR specialist, to ensure that his team sourced the right talent in the right way.

Finance, operations and procurement specialists followed soon afterwards. Carr decided to put everyone in the same room, to encourage collaboration and make sure that everyone was on the same page with the project.

“There was nowhere to hide,” says Carr. Everyone understood what everyone else was doing. No-one was complaining about the finance guys because they knew what they were working on. Same with procurement guys and operations guys.”

This close-quarters working environment also eliminated meetings and drastically reduced emails between members, allowing them to be more efficient. “The only meetings I had were with DCI’s central team, to give them a quick update on how things were going.”

Understand the culture

To effectively manage a project such as Carr’s, you need to know your stakeholders. Effective managers are encouraged to assess the interpersonal skills and behaviours required to maintain successful relationships.

To do business with the best local vendors in the area, Carr needed to understand the culture of doing business in China. As an outsider, he had to work extra hard to understand. It was a steep learning curve, but through persistence, listening to vendors and adapting to the culture as best he can, he was able to get what he needed.

“The Chinese have a concept called Guanxii – essentially it’s getting things done through the people you know. It’s how Chinese society operates. If you have a problem, there’s someone you know who can do a favour for you, and that problem will go away, but then they might want a favour from you too. That’s the kind of relationship I had to build with my vendors.”

Sell it with your passion

Carr had to persuade parents to admit their children with very little to show them – it took some serious influencing skills. “I was asking [parents] to trust me. The school was going to be on the outskirts of Shanghai. There was nobody there. I had to convince people to share the dream of this school based on a building site in a field.”

To sell parents on the school, they had the plans, visuals, the construction site, and their own enthusiasm for the project. “People believed us because we were passionate and we believed in ourselves.”

Maintain staff development

As the project progressed and the team grew, more development work needed to be done to ensure that team members’ skills stayed up to date.

“The CMI has a well-established appraisal process,” says Carr. “Real employee development has got to be more than that.” He meets with all his team leaders on a weekly basis. Some of that conversation is functional, but it’s also about team development and establishing main themes for training.

“People will mention the same things, and that would highlight what to focus on. For example, communication was the key one in the first quarter, then we sent people on courses, review processes, and worked together to improve communication across the board.”

Use the tools available for CMI members

“I’ve never been worried about taking on a challenge and trying new things, but you need the right tools if you’re going to achieve that,” says Carr. “Being a Chartered Manager gives you a toolkit to be able to take on those challenges.”

Interested in becoming a Chartered Manager like Matt? Find out how here.

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