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How To Manage Managers: Lessons, Challenges and Rewards

My career has progressed in such a way that I started managing managers only a year after I was first charged with operating a team. At the time, things were moving so fast, and I had so much on my plate that I took it in stride and never thought much about it. Only in the past year, when my direct reports started managing managers as well, did I begin to conceptualize for myself the particular challenges managing managers poses on a leader.

For starters, the stakes are much higher.

Gallup’s 2015 study of over 7000 employees shows that managers account for over 70% of employee engagement scores variance. What does this mean – a good manager can create and maintain engagement in their employees, which will improve their performance, desire to stay with the organization, and ultimate happiness at work. Managers also directly affect productivity, and their influence is stronger than that of other essential work factors such as having the right peers. In short, getting the right manager for your team can help your team soar. And for you as a leader, managing managers can mean adding expertise to the team that you do not have, being exposed to new perspectives and having a partner with whom to develop tactics and strategies.

And here comes lesson number one of managing managers: “For all of this to happen, you should not hire someone who is the same as you.”

The importance of diversity in the workplace is widely known and so is the similarity bias which prompts us to hire people who resemble us. Succumbing to the similarity bias when hiring a manager for your team can rob it of many advantages and can deny you the opportunity to have someone to learn from.

On the flip side, managing managers comes with its set of challenges. From choosing the right person to ensuring they have enough support to managing their performance, the consequences of failure when managing a manager can be pretty severe. If you have an individual contributor on the team, who underperforms this can affect their personal quality of work and sometimes on the team’s reputation. An individual contributor who does not adhere to the team values or has a negative or resistant attitude can affect the team atmosphere and well-being.

But when that employee is a people manager, you can expect all of the above and much more – a decrease in team motivation, turnover, lack of engagement, overall dip in quality, damaged stakeholder relationships, eroded trust and on and on.

And what is more – often manager’s underperformance is not easy to spot, and by the time the issues become apparent, much of the damage has already been done.

There is a number of scenarios that may obscure our vision of what is happening within the team. The work quality may be preserved, but employees may be unhappy and unwilling or unable to share this. Or the quality may suffer, but without us being close enough to the day-to-day work, we may not be able to identify the root cause. Or the stakeholders may not be willing to share feedback for fear of jeopardizing partnerships and relationships. Or the manager may be hesitant to share their struggles so that they are not perceived as a failure.

So lesson number two in managing managers is: “Keep the communication channels open.”

We should, however, apply this lesson with care. Having regular skip-level meetings with the team members and holding feedback sessions with stakeholders and partners are invaluable in encouraging transparency and honesty. But we should be cautious in how we solicit feedback about our reporting managers because we should not undermine their authority and credibility. We should not be seen as trying to uncover something wrong but rather create trustful relationships which leave enough space for uncomfortable or unpleasant truths to be shared.

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We should also be cognizant that we may not be receiving the feedback others provide us in a completely objective manner. I am very protective of my teams and sometimes go to considerable lengths to show that I have their backs. Lately, this is especially true for the managers who report to me. This is partly because I work very closely with them and witness their efforts and struggles and partly because of the implicit trust I have in them. Nine times out of ten, this is a winning approach that helps them overcome challenges and provides them the security to take risks and develop.

But there have been situations when this protectiveness and trust have prevented me from putting enough weight on the signs of trouble and the feedback I received both from employees and the managers themselves.

And sometimes, even when we are aware that there are issues, we may be more hesitant to take any definitive action when the transgressor is a manager rather than an individual contributor. Now I know that I am more lenient than most and am willing to give multiple second chances and provide more and more support before I concede to the fact that things are not working out. But I have seen similar disinclination to make tough decisions in other much stricter managers than I. The simple fact is that we rely a lot on the managers we manage and usually invest much in them, and it is difficult to accept that maybe they are not the right fit.

But our reluctance may bring detrimental damage for our teams. In the latest case where I failed to act fast enough, led to 20% turnover in the team and many unhappy people.

Thus, we should never forget the importance of lesson number three – “Be cognizant that you may be biased, and if there really is an issue, act fast.”

Luckily, there is a lot we can do as managers of a manager to support them in being successful in their role and avoid the risks of their underperformance.

First, we need to realize that despite having more experience and possibly a higher level of maturity than some of the individual contributors we have managed, they are still an employee and have much of the same needs. They too require an authentic relationship with a manager they can trust,  coaching and performance feedback, clear goals and expectations and career development.

At the same time, there are certain specifics that we also need to take into account.

Any employee’s micromanagement can have multiple adverse effects such as lower productivity, increased stress and higher turnover. But micromanaging a manager may have even more harmful effects. For them to be able to do their job, they need to have authority and credibility both in front of their team and in front of their clients, stakeholders and partners. And micromanagement is the one sure way to kill that. It also prevents them from utilizing and showing their expertise and skills that probably we, as their leader, do not possess and deprives us of the added value they would bring.

Which brings us to the next lesson in managing managers: “Give them freedom and independence.”

Admittedly this is not always easy. Not only because we need to let go of our need to control (which I personally have an abundance of). But also because the balance of providing independence and stepping in when needed is difficult to strike. For my team of managers and me, it has on occasion meant that I have inadvertently let them drown, not realizing that they need a helping hand in a particular situation. We are working on that – I try to listen more intently, and they try to articulate their expectations of me more clearly.

Career development is another area which may be challenging when managing managers. In today’s world, most employees have expectations for fast growth and demand quick expansion of their roles, responsibilities and rise in career level. This is particularly true for new managers. For many achieving a managerial position has been a goal they have worked towards for years. And when they land it, the question “What’s next?” rapidly pops up. And in many organizations, the answer to that question is not immediately apparent or available.

Of course, developing your reporting managers into your potential successors is not only an option but a crucial responsibility of yours. But if you manage teams with very diverse responsibilities, not all of your direct reports would have the proper skill set or expertise to take over your role eventually. And after all, there is one of you, and many of them and preparing them all for your successors may create false expectations and ultimately lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

So what do we do then? We rely on our next lesson – “Don’t let them get bored.”

While the next career step may not be identified yet, or may even be outside of your team, there are multiple opportunities you can provide to the managers you manage to expand their skills and knowledge and prepare for that next step when it comes. It starts with identifying their interests and areas of improvement and then finding or creating projects which can provide them the necessary exposure and learning. Often these projects span beyond their teams and may include supporting a peer in another team, participating in an organization-wide initiative or filling in for you in strategic conversations and discussions.

One of the often experienced challenges is that managers are too busy with their daily work, and such projects may gradually fall down the priority ladder. But it is our responsibility as leaders to help the managers carve out time for them. Otherwise, the daily grind will sooner or later overwhelm them, and they will lose their motivation and drive.

When managing managers, in essence, what you are doing is influencing and achieving results through others. I have worked with leaders responsible for humongous teams of several hundred people. Their ability to set objectives and targets and align this multitude of individuals’ efforts to achieve them has truly astounded me. They were able to do it by instilling their values and goals in the managers they managed.

Some people say that employees do not care about to whom their manager reports. But that is not true. While they do not care whether it is John or Patty, the direction, culture, values and goals that you set for the organization affect them immediately. How well those translate down the hierarchy depends on how aligned you are with your managers on those topics.

In order to achieve that: “Never stop talking about strategy and values.”

One of the biggest challenges we experience when we start managing managers, is accepting our role’s nature also changes, and we need to adapt to its new aspects.

On the one hand, we are no longer very close to operations. Not only are we not able to touch and see everything the team does, moreover, we also should not interfere much so that the team’s manager can establish their authority and organization of work. This is a point I completely missed the first time I built a team and appointed a manager for that team. My participation in everything the team did, made them very dependent on me and had profoundly adverse effects when I eventually left the company.

So the lesson I learned the hard way was: “Learn to let go.”

There is a very positive side to that – you no longer need to be a subject matter expert. I know squat about US benefits (I imagine quantum physics is more complex than US benefits, but I have my serious doubts) or Oracle guided learning or the pension programs in Belgium, but my teams and their respective managers do, and that is more than enough. I am telling you, as I get older and learning new things becomes a bit slower and more tedious, there are fewer more liberating feelings than knowing that I don’t need to know all.

So if we let go of operations and don’t need to be experts in our teams’ work, what do we do? One part of the answer to that is, of course, to build strategies, roadmaps, set objectives and targets, secure the necessary resources to your teams and set standards for performance.

But the other side to this, and what we actually spend most of our days doing, is:

“Build and maintain relationships.”

We need to represent our teams in front of leadership, stakeholders, clients and partners. We need to enlist support, participate positively in workplace politics and ensure that our teams’ goals and objectives align with those of the larger organization and our partners.

And one of the most important relationships among all of those is the one with the managers reporting to us. Unlike in many other manager-employee relationships, here we need to be more of a mentor or a coach than a boss. We need to recognize and respect their expertise and the fact that their management style may differ from ours and obtain their support as partners in building and implementing your strategies for the team.

If we approach our exchange as a partnership rather than a subordinate relationship, we allow ourselves the opportunity to learn and expand our own horizons, skills and perspectives too.

Thus the final lesson I would like to leave you with is: “Keep learning from each other.”

After all, the manager who reports to you today may be your future boss. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

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