Are You a Web Mechanic or a Web Manager?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a slow leak in my tire. I know this because a little light on the dashboard came on alerting me to the problem. I’m no car expert, but I do know that tires are kind of important. So I immediately ran through some possible scenarios: a) panic and drive straight to the nearest garage, hoping they have someone on duty who can fix it; b) ignore the light and risk a blowout on the interstate; or c) make an appointment with my regular mechanic to get the problem checked out.

I went with option "c" and kept myself busy using the garage’s free Wi-Fi to catch up on some work while I waited. Then the mechanic came out, his face puckered with the look a person gets when he has to break bad news. Now, I’m a pretty smart person, but as he started in with his preamble of tread depth, alignment and all-wheel drive, I could feel my eyes glazing over and my impatience bubbling up. Thoughts like, “Why would I ever need to know what constitutes a good PSI” ran through my mind.  As he went on to describe the pros and cons of front-wheel drive, however, I found myself thinking, “Just net it out for me – tell me your recommendation and what it’s going to cost.”

For you car enthusiasts, my tire ignorance is shameful, but I bet most of us can relate to that scenario. To me, tire maintenance is number 8,642 on my list of priorities. When I’m in the car, I’m busy driving it. I’m not thinking about its mechanics. I suspect that’s sort of how some executives feel when they meet with a Web manager.

Web managers, in my experience, are passionate about the Web. They know the ins and outs of your Web site better than anyone else, in part because they have firsthand experience with building it from scratch. Many of them can regale you with anecdotes about coming in at three a.m. to push press releases to the live server or entertain you with a story about the day the site got 20 million hits.

They know about the latest and greatest Web tools and they are constantly on the lookout for best practices that can be used to improve your site. In short, they know a lot of details about what makes a Web site tick.

The problem is, when it comes to talking with executive staff, Web managers can fall into the same routine as my auto mechanic: hitting you with too many technical details and jargon.

Executives understand that the Web, just like tires on a car, is vitally important to their organization, but they are also mindful of the thousands of other factors that keep their organization moving forward. At the same time, executives are thinking about direction and anticipating what big things are waiting around the next bend.

Given all that, it’s probably not a good use of their time to spend an afternoon discussing the latest social media doo-hickey or evaluating COTS versus open source software. It’s too tactical for them. If they’re distracted by trying to understand the mechanics, who’s driving the car? 

If you are a Web manager and you find yourself building a PowerPoint deck for an executive briefing that includes 52 slides about faceted taxonomy… then you might want to step back from the computer and take a deep breath. Think about your audience and how they depend on you to help them make informed decisions. Net out the situation for them and give them a solid recommendation that aligns with the overall Web strategy. 

Here’s a real-life scenario where the Web team is making a pitch for a new project:

Web Mechanic – “We need to implement a CMS, taxonomy and IA. This will allow us to automate workflows and enforce metadata standards resulting in dynamic content, localization and improved search.”

Web Manager – “Based on our strategic objectives to become more efficient, we’ve identified a tool that will allow us to automate some production functions and quality controls for the Web. This will reduce redundant efforts and make it so we can better manage the content to suit our audience’s needs.”

The mechanic defaults to techno-speak and risks disappointment when executives who “just don’t get the Web” turn down their requests. Savvy Web managers, in contrast, understand the mechanics, but also have the ability to translate them to business-speak. They are better able to build a case for the Web by helping executives to correlate Web efforts to bottom-line objectives.

In the above scenario, the executive team may ultimately want to know the specific tactics and budget line items, but when making the initial case, start with the business objectives. Then demonstrate how your planned tactics will help the organization meet them. A deep understanding of the mechanics is vital, but being able to put the Web in the context of business is the key to gaining executive support.

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Comments

I couldn't agree more Christine. I have recently made the leap from web mechanic to web manager at a 2 year college and I still find myself speak web geek speak. I've been told and realize that executives and deans do not understand web geek speak. I think your example is perfect.

Do you have any time for a new web manager to break the habit and talk more in the business language?

Thanks for this, it really helps me focus.

I appreciate this, and always try to keep my audience in mind when I make presentations.

But I'm finding it hard to BE a web manager instead of a web mechanic. It's not easy to pull back and get a big picture view of the site and what it needs, or rather what we need it to do. I get caught up in the very mechanics you mention.

I find the strategic directives in our mission hopelessly general, so there's seldom much "help from above" to work with.

I suppose that's creative tension for you!

Thanks Mike and Karen for your comments. Making the transition from mechanic to manager is tough. You've likely spent years developing technical know-how, which makes you a subject-matter expert. Web mechanics spend the majority of their time either working on the Web or talking to other experts about the Web. It's easy to communicate with other mechanics because you all speak the same language.

But as you move into a management role, you need to think more like a generalist. It's important to communicate in a way that will resonate with a broader audience. For example, when pitching a new project, describe the expected outcome rather than focus on the technical "how-tos" of execution. People love to know what's in it for them, so help them to see how they can benefit.

At the end of the day, some folks may realize they prefer the role of a mechanic, and that's great. Every Web team needs its mechanics AND managers. You have to figure out which role is best for you and embrace it.

Christine,

Fantastic analogy. While the car mechanic is spouting technical facts to delay the hard work of breaking bad news, he or she is also probably trying to build up their credibility. People want to display what makes them unique, especially in a rough economy. But to your point, what really makes managers effective is the ability to separate strategy from tactics, articulate the recommended strategies, and tie them to business objectives to justify the request.

Karen: One way to better understand your organization's objectives is to find out how other departments have translated organizational goals into department strategies and then what metrics they use to measure their progress or drive their P & L. Also if your organization has a formal business case process, try to get a hold of ones that were approved to see how the business owners tied their initiatives to the objectives.

...And like mechanics, I've seen too many web managers and even more web *consultants* dazzle (er sucker) eager executives with techy jargon du jour, only to have their BS get filtered, mangled and translated in to wrong-headed mantras and bromides about web design and web business strategy. "Pleeeeze tell me you're not repeated this dot com era nonsense outside the company" I whisper to myself.

At some point I still think though the executive needs to have a willing ear. The example of CMS is perfect. In 2009, is that really geekspeak? Shouldn't 'how do we effeciently manage our digital content' just be in the fabric of business operations discussions by now? Who are these clueless 20th century technophobes scoring seats in the c-suite?

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