Managing Managers

Every professional transition, whether a promotion, a diagonal move, or switching to a new organization, requires a shift in perspective. Techniques that served you well in your prior role may be less relevant in the new one, and you undoubtedly need to acquire new knowledge and develop new skills.

One of the most pivotal shifts in a leader’s career is when they move from a role managing individual contributors (aka front-line management) to a role managing managers. Today we’ll talk about ways to smooth that transition for yourself and to support others making the shift.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Most first-time managers find themselves in a “player-coach” role. Typically, they were high-performing individual contributors and were recognized with a promotion in the same area. This was my experience. I was an excellent developer, and as manager of our student and finance development teams, I was still arguably the best developer on our team. I split my time between mentoring the developers on my team and rolling up my sleeves, and writing code when things got rough.

When I was promoted to Director and began managing managers, I understood I had serious problems if I needed to write any code. I would no longer be successful depending on the programming talents that helped me grow and lead other developers. About this time, I read Marshall Goldsmith’s classic, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. As you make this pivotal shift, you also find the book timely. If you continue to rely on what made you successful as a front-line manager, you will likely struggle to lead managers successfully.

Reactive and Creative

Look closely at the words reactive and creative, and you’ll notice they are nearly identical – the “c” has just been shifted over three characters. But oh, what a difference the position of that “c” makes! This is one of the foundational components of the Leadership Circle Profile, which I use for 360 feedback assessments.

Our reactive tendencies often serve us well as managers and individual contributors. These include being ambitious, driven, conservative, critical, and autocratic. They are not necessarily wrong or ineffective, but at higher levels of leadership, they can be self-limiting, especially when we are too ambitious, for example. 

Our creative competencies correlate highly with overall leadership effectiveness and enable us to lead from a place of creativity and openness. These include tendencies such as strategic focus, decisiveness, integrity, selfless leader, systems thinker, and courageous authenticity.

As we move to managing managers, we must develop our creative competencies, both for our success and to model and coach those competencies for the leaders that report to us. This begins by building awareness of our strengths and our growth opportunities. A 360 feedback assessment can be a great tool when you reach this stage in your career.

Making The Shift

Presumably, you are now managing managers because you’re leading an organization that would be too flat without them. This means the techniques that work with front-line management will no longer scale. Those techniques are the ones your managers need to embrace – many of them no longer apply to your new role.

If this sounds daunting, take a breath, and think about what got you here.

Your excellence as an individual contributor got you promoted to front-line management. Similarly, your excellence as a front-line manager got you promoted to managing managers. Just as you used your individual contributor expertise to coach and develop your team (and pitch in when needed), you can now use that management expertise to coach and lead your managers. Similarly, you can still pitch in for management functions when required – just not the individual contributor functions.

What’s critical is that you fully embrace the shift. You will struggle if you cling to your individual contributor expertise and insist on bringing that front and center in your leadership. This will hold you back from shifting to more strategic thinking. It will also frustrate your managers, who will feel like you are not giving them the autonomy to do their job. You may get a dopamine rush diving into the details to save the day, but it won’t be worth the impact on your team’s morale. It can be demoralizing when your boss’s boss feels the need to step in and do your job.

Thinking Multi-Level

Another common pitfall at this stage is failing to think multi-level. As a front-line manager, your entire organization reports to you. You don’t have to think multi-level to empathize with your organization. This gives you a lot of control. Your communications are very effective. As you move higher in the organization, many of your communications will not reach your entire organization directly. Increasingly you rely on communications to cascade effectively through your managers to their teams. You rely on your managers to field questions from the team and trust that their answers will align with your own.

This requires conscious effort. You need to be thoughtful about every level of your organization. Which communications should be delivered by you to the entire organization? Can a regular all-hands meeting or another communication vehicle support this? If you expect your managers to provide the communication or field questions from the team, are you deliberate and prescriptive about the messaging? Taking the time to frame a communication plan and talking points with your leaders can prevent endless churn and confusion across your organization as each leader delivers a different take on your message.

Coaching and Mentoring

As front-line managers, we spend most of our time mentoring our team. When we mentor, we impart our knowledge and experience to another person. As we move higher in the organization, we want to shift our role deliberately, doing more coaching and less mentoring. As a coach, we ask powerful questions, serve as thought partners, and enable the coachee to discover their own answers. The more you can shift to coaching your managers, the faster you will accelerate their growth.

See 1:1 101 for more about mentoring and coaching.

Putting It Into Practice

As you or someone you know moves from managing individual contributors to managing managers, consider these strategies to support the shift:

  • Acknowledge what got you here, won’t get you there, and build awareness about the different responsibilities of your new role.
  • Shift from reactive tendencies that served you well in the past to creative competencies that help you think and act more creatively and strategically.
  • Complete a 360 feedback assessment to understand your strengths and opportunities for growth better.
  • Recognize you have expertise as a manager that will enable you to coach and mentor other managers.
  • Think multi-level. Be thoughtful about communication strategies that will reach your entire organization.
  • Shift your 1:1s to include more coaching and less mentoring.

Schedule time with Josh.

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