Managing Managers

Updated: May 10, 2020

Leadership is a journey, and while you can be a leader in different contexts, at some point you will transition from directly managing a team, to managing managers who are managing teams. That sounded like a tongue twister didn’t it? Well, I’ve had a few people ask me about transitioning from being a manager to managing managers, and I thought to put this together.

Several people find this transition a bit difficult. To be honest there are several times I have caught myself in knee jerk reactions of my personality, training and have accepted those as teachable moments to learn critical lessons.

It could be that you're a bit of a control freak (this is a safe space!) or, maybe you are used to doing things your way, or you particularly find it difficult leaving an important decision to others, without being involved.

Before I continue, I'll just say, it is impossible, and I repeat impossible to effectively and truly lead without trust. Quote me. As you build your rapidly growing team, here are a few things that have worked for me, and I hope they work for you.

It is impossible to effectively lead without trust

Hire Right:

The very first journey to managing managers' right is to hire/promote right. If you are lucky enough to be the one to build your team, you must select competent people who also embody the values of your organization, this makes it so much easier to trust down the line.

When you start building a management team, the virus that is your culture will begin to spread exponentially and there will be a natural distance between you and the front line. This can be scary, suddenly you no longer are interacting directly with most of the team because, well you are getting much bigger. Fear not, and trust more. Your management team is that layer and an important catalyst to the cause of building a lasting organization.

So, if you hire wrong, you have unwittingly introduced an undesired behavior that will replicate within your organization very quickly, and that can be very hard to correct. This step is so important because I've seen it all unravel because the wrong person was either promoted/hired as a manager. This leads to competency issues that cascade down the organization, which then leads to trust issues from you, and again, there is no leadership without trust.

Here is a related post on recruiting a stellar team :)

Trust First:

If you have a hard time letting other people make decisions their own way then there is a lot to learn as you transition to managing managers. It is important to know, and trust that although your managers may do it differently compared with you, it is critical to be able to trust that they will do it well, maybe in ways you might not have even considered, more often than not, even better than you might have :)

If you do not have that trust, and you find it difficult to build. It’s either one or two things, or maybe both. 1) You need to deal with your trust issues, and/or 2) You don’t trust the competence of your manager. This is NOT a good place to be. See why hiring right is very important?

Guide, Not Direct:

You have hired competent and seasoned managers. No-one, especially competent and seasoned people love to be constantly told what to do. It reeks of a lack of trust and it undermines their authority with their team.

So, when faced with a decision with your team, take this as a cue to display trust and guide the conversation, not direct. Your manager is competent and knows what they are doing, it is your job not to tell them what to do - because that is not the issue. But to give them context, insight, and guidance that might improve the overall quality of their decisions and the alignment with a cohesive company strategy.

There will be times when they have a stark opposite approach to a problem than you will have taken, this is a great time to learn how to be open-minded, and again - trusting that their approach might be different from yours, but doesn’t make it any less effective, and might be perhaps even more effective.

Constantly Communicate Vision

This often seems trivial, but it is such an important element of this transition. Constant communication is important to keep top of mind what is important to have when making daily seemingly mundane decisions that eventually create congruence in an organization, that seems almost unreal.

It is now your job to articulate the company vision, to communicate it in a simple and easily digestible way, and to continuously do so. To ensure that your management team is involved in that decision-making process of your company strategy. To be certain that the rationale for the company direction is clear and people are bought in. I like to say, with company vision, if you think you're communicating enough, you're probably not communicating enough. If you think you're over-communicating, then - you're likely communicating it enough.

With company vision, if you think you're communicating enough, you're probably not communicating enough. If you think you're over-communicating, then - you're likely communicating it enough.

If this is done right, what you find is that your managers do the same with their teams and you have successfully built a pervasive and collective alignment towards a solid, ambitious, and exciting vision. Who best to achieve this but a competent, engaged, and empowered team?

Achieving Congruence Is A Key Role:

Right on the same train of thought, as the manager of several other managers, one of your main roles is now supporting the managers to get things done in a cohesive way that reflects your overarching company strategy. After your strategy has been defined, communicated and everyone is excited. It is the execution time, and execution is often perceived as a one-time event. It is not. It is in daily seemingly small decisions across the organization.

Each of these managers is responsible for a particular area in your business, and it is very easy for each of them to think in silos, executing excellently on departmental goals but not necessarily deeply appreciating the context of how they fit with others in the organization, and the inter-dependencies they might encounter that make for a more wholesome work towards the overall strategy.

This is your new job, to guide them to see in context at all times. You won't always be there to make sure there is enough context so, as much as possible you want to communicate context, consistently. To being the compass that re-aligns individual departmental goals in the context of an overarching direction. You are transitioning from the tactical to the strategic.

Measure Differently:

I personally measure managers not just on their ability to reach and exceed ambitious organizational goals, which - if you hire right will less of a problem. I also measure them on their ability to develop their team. Culture, like a virus, is a seemingly innocuous thing that builds with every iteration of a commonly held belief (often unspoken) but rapidly replicates and has such a stronghold that is literally almost impossible to fight off.

You want to make sure that you are deliberate about the culture you are building by what you measure across your organization. Especially with your middle management. Measuring the growth of their team as a reflection of their management competency is a strong way to send a signal that in your organization, everyone’s professional growth is important and as a leader, your team is a reflection of you. If the team you lead isn't growing and learning and showing results that demonstrate this, then there is a problem.

What is particularly fascinating about this approach is that it is very rewarding to see this same philosophy begin to replicate even with the manager’s teams. As you have held them accountable for their team’s growth, they reflect that same energy across their teams and what you eventually have is a cohesive team who is incentivized not just for their own growth, but the growth of others on their team as well. Win-win!

Friend, most of what I write here is an iterative process of my personal experience, reading books, and keen observation and reflection. They worked for me, and they might work for you, or they might not.

Instead of seeing them as prescriptive, please consider them as a guide that might throw color on how best you might approach your unique leadership journey.

I really hope this helps, and I wish you all the best in your leadership your journey! Share this with someone you know might need it :)

Stay safe and chat soon.



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