You’ll need to do the following five things:
1. Get aligned about big, important goals, with clear deadlines attached. For instance, you might settle it with your IT team that, “We need an interactive Web site up and running in time for our big legislative push, which means launched, tested, and ready to use by February.” This keeps you focused on the end product, and then you can ask questions about the process: "How will we know whether this is on track? Are there milestones you could set to hit along the way?"
2. Manage by asking good questions rather than suggesting answers. Even without knowing the substance, you can pose basic, useful questions like, "How do you know that 'XYZ' is true?" or "What will you do if 'ABC' happens?" or "What do other organizations do about 'ABC'?"
3. Connect the person to his or her "customers." Your employee may be doing work that few others understand, but people will generally know whether or not they’re getting what they need. If you find yourself in the middle between employees in other departments who tell you they want something, and an expert who you manage, your job is to bring the two sides together. Make sure your employee is talking to his or her "customers" and agreeing with them on what they’ll have by when. Ensure there’s an ongoing channel for communication and feedback, such as periodic surveys or other means that let you and your staffer see how these “customers” feel.
4. Judge by what you do know. Even if you don’t have a nuanced understanding of the bulk of the employee’s area of work, you’ll still understand parts of it--even if it’s just something like, "Did this person explain what she was doing in a way customers could understand?" Or, with IT, whether or not your E-mail and networking are running smoothly. It's OK to extrapolate from the parts you do understand: If the pieces you get seem great, it’s reasonable to assume that the rest probably is too. And if the pieces you get seem off, it’s likely that the rest may be too; in that case, you’ll need to dig deeper.
5. Ask the employee how you can be of most help. You may get answers you never would have come to on your own.
Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.