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Managing managers: How’s it different?

This post lists the key insights from this article, from Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team.


Based on the hundreds of leaders the author has interviewed over the years, here’s what she noticed as the biggest differences — and things to keep in mind — as you’re managing managers.

Consider yourself a coach’s coach.

Your success as a leader lies not in your reports 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.

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 they’re 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.

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.

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.

One of the most important ways a leader should spend their time is on recruiting and hiring. 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.

You’re likely further from being the domain expert you once were, than before. 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.

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?”

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.

3 min​ read

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