5 Things I Learned the Hard Way as a Manager of Managers by Vinita | October, 2022

Leaders become great not because of their strength, but because of their ability to empower others

Being a manager of managers is a big responsibility.  Your decisions and what you say or do affect not only your managers but also the people who report to them.  Attracting great talent is not enough.  You also need to hold them together and help them achieve excellence.  Even though you have a lot to learn, by applying the right practices you can move forward and become the leader your people expect you to be.
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When I first transitioned from being an individual contributor to a manager, my responsibility shifted from doing work to getting my work done through others. My work was no longer about the number of lines of code I wrote, what bugs I fixed or changes I pushed into production. This involved bringing people together, helping them realize their potential, and empowering them to do some of their best work.

It took some time for me to think about the shift in mindset from going it alone to fostering teamwork, my growth in being responsible for others, and embracing them to avoid conflicts. I made a lot of mistakes, learned from them, experimented with new strategies, and repeated the process. The experience was rewarding and fulfilling; I was growing and learning – knowing that there is so much to do and finding ways to make it better in some way was addictive.

My ability to look at change with curiosity and my ability to creatively solve big problems with calmness and strategy propelled me to the next chapter of my career – I was no longer managing IC; I was now managing other managers. Being responsible for people who were responsible for so many other people was nerve-wracking. The impact of my decisions and what I said or did was no longer limited to a few engineers. Although I had a lot to learn, I decided to move on and become the leader my people expected.

Here are some exercises that helped me become a better manager of managers. It contains lessons from some of the world’s best leaders and my own learnings through experimentation, trial and error.

Before you are a leader, success is all about developing yourself. When you become a leader, success is in developing others – Jack Welch

Every step of the ladder takes you away from the people who do the real work. What you see and what you often hear may be less in reality and far from the truth. The only way to bridge this gap is to stay connected with people in your organization who no longer report directly to you.

Keeping the communication lines open with your indirect reports managed by your managers enables several things:

  1. Gives you the opportunity to hear about their real problems.
  2. You can know how employees feel about their managers. Knowing how your managers are doing enables more relevant feedback.
  3. Gives them a channel to voice their concerns. They feel heard and supported by leaders in the organization.

A great way to stay connected and closer to reality is to have regular skip level meetings. I planned a face-to-face with each of my indirect reports every 2 months. Making it a recurring meeting was the best way to relieve the burden of decision making and ensure that it is not deprived. Find a frequency that works for you and your people and stick to it.

Leadership is solving problems. The day the soldiers stopped bringing their problems to you, you stopped leading them. They have either lost faith that you can help or have concluded that you don’t care. Any matter is a failure of leadership – Colin Powell

It’s tempting to solve a problem. You’ve done it before as a manager and you can do it again. However, the more you step up and move on, the less able your manager will be to deal with future situations.

The job of a leader in any organization is not to tell people what to do, to attend to every problem, or to deliver 100% correct results. Their job is to develop their people – enabling them to use their knowledge to make their own decisions, inspiring them to build the skills they need to feel confident, and to look into the future and solve difficult problems. Using your own time effectively.

Be a coach, be a great teacher. Give them the necessary context but don’t make their decisions for them. Do not dictate how a certain job should be done. A great way to do this is to ask questions:

  1. What challenges are you facing?
  2. What measures have you tried? What work did you do? what did not work?
  3. What are other possible solutions?

Whenever we act diligently and possibly brilliantly, advising others about the decisions they are involved in, their internal response may well be “That’s great. She’s working.” Yes, coming up with all the ideas. I’m off the hook. And if her idea explodes, it wasn’t mine, so I’ll still look good. Bonus is I don’t risk myself or my ideas I am not putting it. I have to be safe.” This conscious or unconscious internal response is incredibly costly for both the organization and the individual. Trying to make leaders by exposing their talents regularly guarantees a lack of growth. You will not allow anyone around you to show the solution out of reach of your personal headlights. If Your Employees Believe That Their Job Is To Do What You Tell Them, You’re Overwhelmed — Susan Scott

Want your managers to admire and respect you? Stop doing things that make you look good. Stop trying to please them. When your decisions are rooted in possibility, you focus on being good which prevents you from speaking your truth. You try to avoid disagreements, ignore conflicts and are hesitant to challenge them.

As a manager of managers, be kind, courageous, courteous and considerate. You can take care of yourself personally and challenge yourself directly at the same time. It is your job to bring out the best in your managers and lead your organization to excellence. You can’t do it unless you are ready to make bold decisions and exercise courage to stand out.

To bring out the best in your managers:

  • Don’t react cane. They must learn to handle criticism, even if it doesn’t sound good to you at first.
  • Hold them accountable. Teach them the value of making commitments and sticking to them.
  • Instill hope for success and believe in yourself. Encourage them to keep trying.
  • Challenge them to pursue and embrace opportunities to drive major initiatives, lead large projects, and do impressive work for your organization.
  • Give them tough goals, not easy ones. Let them surprise you.

Effective leadership is not about delivering speeches or being liked; Leadership is defined by results not by qualities – Peter Drucker

What is more important as a leader – proving yourself right or making the right decisions? I think the answer is obvious. Yet most leaders do the former – they let their ego get in the way. When proving your talent takes precedence over making the right decisions, you fail as a leader.

When discussing with your managers do this:

  1. State your point of view, but also show an eagerness to hear them.
  2. Ask questions to understand their point of view. Don’t reject anything without hearing it first.
  3. If you disagree with them, don’t hesitate to share your opinion. Challenge them, ask for clarification and dig deeper.
  4. When it’s time to make a final decision, if the data is in their favor, show your support and enable them to move on instead of getting bogged down in their initial opinion.

A strong leader has the humility to listen, the confidence to challenge, and the wisdom to know when to quit arguing and get on board – Kim Scott

The way you manage your managers greatly affects how they manage their teams. Do they want their teams to provide consistent feedback? Begin providing consistent feedback to your managers. Do they want them to handle conflicts well? Start doing it yourself without ignoring or avoiding conflicts. Do they want them to speak up and disagree? Use every opportunity to engage in healthy disagreements.

As a manager of managers, what you say matters more than what you do. Your managers may not take you seriously if you tell them one thing and follow a different practice yourself. It’s important that you execute – be consistent in what you ask for and how you demonstrate it in your dealings. The best way to train and teach your managers is to demonstrate it in action, not through speeches.

People listen to what we say, but watch what we do… and to see is to believe. Words are just words…until you live by them. You Have To Walk Talk Eric Harvey

  1. Being a manager of managers is a big responsibility. Your behavior and actions affect not only your managers but also the people reporting to them.
  2. As the gap between you and the employees widens, it becomes difficult to stay in touch with reality. Not knowing the difficulties your employees are facing will prevent you from fulfilling your responsibilities. Bridging this gap by doing regular face-to-face with your indirect reports.
  3. Train your managers and help them make better decisions, but don’t make their decisions for them. You cannot develop the people in your organization unless you also empower them.
  4. Your managers will respect and admire you for your courage, compassion and ability to make tough decisions. Don’t focus on making them like you. Worry more about the impact.
  5. Listen to your managers. Challenge their point of view. But don’t let your ego get in the way of taking the right decision.
  6. Don’t expect your managers to do what you can’t do yourself. walk the talk. Your managers are learning from your actions.

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