Managing managers: How’s it different?

Six things to consider when managing managers instead of individual contributors.

“What’s the biggest difference between managing managers versus managing individual contributors?”

I recently was asked this question at a conference I spoke at in the United Kingdom. Then a few days later, funnily enough, this same question was the central topic at a panel I moderated in San Francisco.

Clearly, it’s a question top of mind for many of us, all over the world, who find ourselves promoted or hired into a role where we’re not just a manager – but a manager of managers. Is this brand of leadership any different? What should a new manager of managers consider in their role?

Based on the research and insights we’ve gathered through Know Your Team, and the hundreds of leaders I’ve interviewed over the years, here’s what I noticed as the biggest differences – and things to keep in mind – as you’re managing managers.

Consider yourself a coach’s coach.

Autonomy in the workplace is table stakes. Dan Pink has written about it, Harvard Business Review has written about it… We all intuitively know that as a manager you’re supposed to give people the freedom and room to do their best work. However, with managing managers, the need for autonomy becomes even more critical. Your success as a leader lies not in them delivering the work –  but helping them help their team deliver the work. So the amount of space you give someone to do that as a manager, versus as an individual contributor, is much greater. 

But what does this tangibly look like? As a manager of manager, you play the role of “coach”– except this time, you’re coaching a coach. You’re in a manager’s back pocket, ready to listen when their stuck, frustrated, worried, or confused about something. You’re not helping them make progress on specific tasks, but helping them think through sticky situations. What’s keeping them up at night? Who’s the person on their team that they’re trying to figure out how to help perform better? A sign of a great coach is one who asks a disproportionate amount of questions to their team. As a coach’s coach, consider:  Are you asking even more questions than you ever did before?

Make the answer to “Where are we going?” resoundingly clear.

Vision is undoubtably important to share as a leader. After all, your team needs to understand where they are going and why it’s important to get there. But when you’re managing managers, this vision needs to be exceedingly clear. Why? Because the folks you’re managing will need to answer the question, “Where are we going?” for their direct reports. Your managers will need to find ways to align the personal visions of their team members with the organization’s shared vision. So if you haven’t made the answer to the question “Where are we going?” absurdly obvious, you can bet that the vision becomes watered-down or distorted in some way once your managers share it with their direct reports. As a manager of managers, you must clarify, repeat, reinforce, evaluate, and again clarify and repeat the answer to “Where are we going?” over and over again.

Get comfortable criss-crossing. 

When you’re managing managers, your focus is much more cross-functional – you’re working with business units across the entire organization, instead of just one or two. There’s a popular misconception that you get more freedom and control the “higher up” you go. But the reality is, when managing managers, your freedom and control is contingent on more moving pieces. You have more stakeholders to consider, more departments to coordinate with. Sure, you have the “final word” on more things and greater scope than when you were only managing individual contributors. But now, as a manager of managers, your view of the pie – and your responsibility of the pie – is bigger.

More of your time is spent recruiting, than ever. 

According to the 1,000+ leaders in our online community in Know Your Team, one of the most important ways a leader should spend their time is on recruiting and hiring. When I spoke with Edward Kim, CTO of Gusto, he affirmed this. With 100+ engineers, 600+ total employees, and continuing to rapidly hire, Edward said that most of his time goes toward recruiting folks – and that arguably may even have increased over time. This makes sense, given how critical it is for who is a part of your organization. As the management scholar Jim Collins famously wrote, you’ve got to have the right people on the bus, first, before you drive it anywhere. 

You’re not the domain expert anymore.

Domain expertise and domain leadership are not the same thing. Knowledge, of course, is formative for decision-making and credibility, but it’s not the driving force behind helping a group of people work together, get aligned around common objectives, and make progress. The latter depends on your ability to build trust, to communicate honestly, to figure out what motivates each person, and to lay out a clear path of where you’re going, and why it’s important to get there. Remember this as you transition to managing managers. You’re likely further from being the domain expert you once were, than before. It’s feels unnerving, to say the least – you’re not up-to-date with the latest technologies or trends as you’d like to be. But keep in mind that your priority is not in your fluency in the domain. Your priority is making sure the people on your team are the domain experts, and that you’re helping them do their best work to contribute to the organization.

You’re growing leaders, not just leading leaders.

Naturally, as a manager of managers, part of your role involves growing other leaders in the organization. This doesn’t necessarily mean putting formal training or mentorship programs in place (though, it can help). Growing other leaders can be as straightforward as carving out more dedicated time during your one-on-one meetings to ask questions like, “Is there anything outside your current role you’d like to be contributing toward?” or “What project have you been most proud to work on and why?”  Essentially, you want to consider:  Are you giving people a reason to want to continue to work in the organization? Are you making it place worthy for them to further their careers? Why would they want to stay?

This also means personally exemplifying the kind of leadership you’d like to see across the organization. Managers who are leading their teams are taking notes from you, watching you for cues on how to behave, make decisions, and handle situations. Your actions aren’t just affecting your direct reports anymore – they’re affecting their direct reports as well. Everyone is learning from your actions, implicitly. Keep this in mind.

You’ll notice that managing managers isn’t wholly different from managing individual contributors. The fundamentals are the same. Whether you’re a manager of managers or of individual contributors, you’re still helping a team achieve its desired outcomes. Rather, the points of emphasis differ:  The amount of space you give your team, how exactly you spend your time, and who you’re interacting with on a day-to-day basis.

Managing a manager is both different – and not so different. Whichever way you choose to view it, in focusing on these elements, I hope your transition to becoming a manager of managers is smoother than you originally anticipated.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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