transitioning from a colleague to the boss

Transition from a colleague to the boss: The challenges of management jobs

“When I grow up, I’d like to be a boss“.  Perhaps not the most common career people end up having, but I am sure that it’s on your list too. The executive chair offers many benefits: Decision making power, great travel and of course the big money and all that sounds excellent, right? But is there something we are missing- can all that glitter be gold? We spoke with someone who should know. Michael Dams is currently the Managing Director and Director Central Europe (DA-CH) at National Instruments (NI), a leading provider of hardware and software in the field of measurement, simulation and automation. With over 20 years of experience working for the American company in Germany and being in a leadership position, he is the best person to give us insights on what it all really means. In our conversation with him, among other things, we talk through why it is sometimes not so easy to transition from a colleague to the boss …

transitioning from a colleague to the boss

Experteer: In your opinion, who is a good boss?

Michael Dams: I would say a good boss has deep knowledge of the subject matter, can listen and communicate clearly. In addition, he trusts his staff and creates momentum. He/She mediates and makes decisions where necessary. He/She brings in authenticity and integrity. What is important to me personally is also that he/she is reliable and does not just take credit for success. At National Instruments, we have an expression for this: Principle Y. This means that the employee comes in with an attitude to basically enjoy doing good work and making an effort. You do not need to control the employees. A good boss first believes in the best in people, before questioning anyone.

With this, I do not want to give the impression that  training and development are not important. However, it is essential first to acknowledge and ascertain the skills an employee brings in before trying to push more in terms of training him or her. Never make assumptions but always ask: you’ll be surprised with what you get back.

Personally, I always reflect about a new employee: How can I get to know these people best? A technical system for such a thing is unknown to me, and I am learning to understand it by observing it. And so should you, with your staff. In the beginning, an employee is still highly motivated and will potentially grow beyond this euphoria that as a leader I must maintain in my employees.

Experteer: What should everyone be prepared for when they take up the position of a boss? What have you learned in your experience as a top boss?

Michael Dams: There are generally two perspectives: either you’ve grown within the company and landed on the executive chair or you’ve joined in at a senior position from outside. These are two different things, because if you transition from a colleague to the boss, you are faced with very different challenges than when you are thrown into a completely new environment. Both aspects have advantages and disadvantages.

If you ask a college graduate, what his/her plans for the next 5 year are, usually you’d hear: I want to advance in my position as a manager and a leader. If you then ask, why, you may hear: I have read about it or my uncle told me about it. Many forget what this really means. You may suddenly come into situation where two of your employees want a leave at the same time , but this is clearly not possible. What can you do in this situation? You may offend one that’s for sure. You don’t come as a boss in situations where you can afford to sit on the fence and conflicts will automatically go out of the way. To be a leader means to enforce decisions, even if the employees will not necessarily be thrilled.

Now, if you are transitioning from colleague to a boss, you are no longer the “buddy”. You must think like with business acumen but always remain to true to yourself. And that’s a challenge. One is confronted with a variety of expectations and motivations: one employee would like a new, flexible working desk, another may prioritize family and a child, and yet another will not want to travel so much. The fate of a manager is often decided by the decisions he/she makes: For instance, when an employee is ill, you need to intervene and these things are not always easy, especially sensitive personal issues.

Experteer: Do you see differences between the US and Germany in terms of working, how would you describe them?

Michael Dams: USA is a large country, I’ve now worked for an American company for 20 years. They certainly play on topics such as the principle of “hire and fire”, and I can disagree with some of the aspects around that topic. I see differences but not how everyone else thinks of them. My biggest point of contention is that the Americans think, do, try while the Germans think through and deliberate more. This in turn has advantages and disadvantages, and it can’t be said that one way of thinking is worse than the other.

Experteer: Where do you see the advantages in a global collaboration? Are there any disadvantages?

Michael Dams: I think this is not an easy question to answer and it is not up to us to judge this. The fact is: You have to work together in collaboration, but this is often associated with obstacles such as cultural diversity. These are the challenges we face.

Experteer: Soft-Skills are increasingly important at workplace. Where do you see the potential for improvement in Germany?

Michael Dams: We need talk more and present ourselves better. We must convey and market ourselves and our products better. We all live in the always-on world and sit daily in front of our computer screens and laptops. And yet, it is difficult for us to use this for our personal branding. A tip: A difficult e-mail response in the “Draft”  – does not equal to “send” button. Maybe it looks quite the next day  different, or talking on the phone with the sender – sounds simple, but it is often done wrong.

Even the skills of dealing with staff could be improved. Try to recognize the strengths in yourself and your colleagues. Many follow the (false) maxim: “Judge the fish by its ability to climb a tree”. Employees anyway demand a lot from themselves,  fill in resumes with titles and awards. Eventually it is about staying authentic. Otherwise finding the right job may not work in my opinion.

It’s OK to have fun,” describes an important element that allows me and the team performance. For me, talent is the strength I have and I can repeatedly apply it without great stress. So it is about recognizing strengths and working on them and not focusing too much energy on the weaknesses. “Do not try to put in what what left out, try to get out what what we put in”, something I read in a book.

These virtues when properly used, all account for a “Great Place to Work”, both for managers and for employees. It is important to remember through that sometimes finding the right team, or the right place to work in, is not a job you accomplish in a mere hour.

We’d like to thank Michael Dams for this interesting interview. To be a leader is not an easy task, which is surely clear after these thoughts. But becoming a good leader does not have to be hard when one is aware of the challenges that one may be faced with and what opportunities it can lead to.

About Michael Dams und National Instruments

Herausforderungen einer Führungskraft

Michael Dams studied Electrical and Infomation technology at TU Munich. From late 1980s, he began first with energy research – mainly renewable energy in wind and solar energy. In 1990, he joined as a Group Leader for technical support with the newly formed subsidiary of National Instruments in Munich. After working as the sales and marketing director, he is now the Director of Sales in Central and Eastern Europe (D-ACH and Eastern Europe). National Instrument is a global Instrumentation company headquartered in Austin, USA. NI has won several awards in Germany as a ‘great place to work’ and is on many such ‘best employer’ lists globally as well. NI promotes the interest of young people in technical and scientific fields and is committed to creating the future in various adjacent networks.

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