Managing Managers: How to be Great at Managing People who Manage People

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Transitioning Your Leadership: Grow As Your Team Grows…

One of my clients is going through a transition to leading a team where all his staff manage other people—and some of them manage people who manage people. To him it feels very different to manage staff who do things as it does to manage staff who manage people.

I had to pause for a moment, because, to me, it all looks the same, but I realised what he was seeing that I didn’t, and we were able to dig in. Maybe the direction of our conversation will be helpful to you?

It also applies in other areas—my youngest son called me yesterday wanting a break from his essay.

Do you want to talk about it, I asked.

Sure, he replied.

I know nothing at all about his subject (although we did joke about me writing it for him), so I’m not helping him with the work, I’m helping him to lighten the weight of the project and his expectations of his tutor so he can arrive at a new way of seeing it. We don’t always realise it, and we definitely don’t always do it, but the less we get involved in the ‘how to’ detail of what our friends and family are asking us, the more effectively we’ll be able to support them.

Back to my client and managing managers…

To him there was a big difference between helping someone with their work, which is a ‘thing’, something known and tangible, with measurements and outcomes and deadlines; and managing ‘people’, which isn’t a ‘thing’, it’s intangible, and he doesn’t always understand it. He doesn’t know how to judge whether or not he’s doing a good job when the focus is on the person and not on the work—how can he measure something when he isn’t contributing the inputs that create the outcomes?

He Has the Right Words…

Of course he knows all the right language, and he knows what he’s supposed to be doing: involving staff, empowering and delegating, creating a shared vision, aligning values, promoting a learning culture, encourage innovation, involving the team, giving people a seat at the table, blah blah blah…

But he also knows that these characteristics, many of which will be taught in leadership programmes, describe what already successful leaders do, rather than support new leaders to do it.

My client doesn’t want to be the person who says,

“But I followed the instructions!”

…and then find the self-assembly furniture falls apart in front of his eyes.

Learning to Play…

It can definitely help to know what success looks like, but me watching Federer v Murray and then taking a tennis racquet out to the court isn’t going to guarantee I’ll be able to play. I know broadly I’m hitting a green ball across a net, but that’s about it. I know what game I’m in, I need to learn to play, and that is the art of becoming a great leader—not just knowing what success looks like in someone else, but knowing when what it feels like for ourselves, and knowing to adjust when we’re off-track.

A good tennis coach will get me to feel into what it should feel like when I’m serving the ball, he or she won’t just tell me what the characteristics of a good serve look like, and a good leadership coach will do the same.

We have to see it, or feel it, for ourselves before we will embody it in our behaviour.

It’s Not (just) About the Road Signs…

For my client, acting in a way that he thinks will get him a good score on a leadership checklist, but not really feeling it, might help him exhibits the outward traits of a good leader, but there’ll always be a sense of something inauthentic underneath it. He’ll (inadvertently) become that micro-managing leader who stifles the performance and development of the person he’s managing, or he’ll say one thing and do another—not the best way of earning trust and developing a team.

I remember when my oldest son learned to drive. He failed, maybe three times, the part of the test where he had to learn all the road signs, but he passed, every time, the part with the simulated driving and spotting of risks and dangers. And, when he finally did pass the knowledge test, he passed the road driving first time.

Leadership is kinda the same. We can learn the road signs, but that doesn’t make us a good driver.

My client one hundred percent understands this and he’s here to learn to drive.

How do I get it right, he asks, so it feels right, not just looks right.

But you know when you’re in that micro-managing role, right? I ask him.

Yes, mostly, although sometimes I don’t see it until afterwards.

That’s fine, I say, at least you have an awareness. When you notice, stop, and ask yourself where it looks to you like the work matters more than the person. And then ask whether you can let this go, just for a moment, and support the staff member in front of you to find his or her own way through. Notice I’m saying support, which is a world away from leaving them on their own to struggle and potentially fail.

Become a Better Leader…

As a manager of other managers, you need to be able to develop the perspective to step back from the tasks, to direct and to empower someone within their areas of skills and experience. As soon as you can see this, then you’ll naturally delegate, you’ll naturally support, you’ll naturally step in when you need to.

You’ll naturally be doing all those things on the ‘great leadership’ checklist, without having to consciously remember what they are.

Just like my son and his essay; the less inclined I am to help him write it, the more I can actually help him become a better student (and enjoy the experience of writing).

If you want to become a better leader, especially a leader who manages people who are managing people, then the place to put your energy into isn’t to learn what’s on the checklist, but to develop your sensitivity to knowing when you’re in supportive mode, when you’re not taking the work personally and not making it your job to deliver the results, versus when you’re back in the trenches, doing the work and wanting to grab the pen out of the hand of your member of staff (or son!) and write it for him. Not that there’s never a need to do something for someone, but that isn’t what will make you a great leader.

Or a great parent ;-).

With love,