How to Manage Managers: Six Revelations for First Time Senior Managers

by Sabina Nawaz

Have you ever been promoted for excelling at something, only to find your performance suddenly faltering?

This was the case for Sana after her promotion to a role as a senior manager responsible for managers rather than directly overseeing a team. There are substantive differences in how you manage individual contributors and how you manage managers. I’ll use Sana’s story to introduce six of these.

For three years, Sana had been viewed as an excellent people manager. She was in touch with the technology and cared deeply about helping team members produce flawless results. Her team was small but produced more code than some larger groups. People flocked to her organization and filled out strong employee satisfaction polls. Her promotion seemed to be a no-brainer.

Eight months into her new role, Sana didn’t feel connected to her new team, her direct reports didn’t say much during staff meetings, employees were interviewing for other jobs, there was a major quality issue with one of the products, and the schedule had slipped beyond an acceptable window.

You may find yourself in a situation like Sana’s where neither you nor your team benefits from your strengths as a manager once you’ve become a manager of managers. Understanding six of these distinctions can help boost you up the management career ladder, rather than destabilizing it when you make this jump.

1. Guide vs. decide. With her commitment to a high bar, Sana continued to make most decisions. Although usually right, she was creating dependence on her rather than building capacity in her direct reports. The more hands-on she was, the less opportunity they had to learn from their own judgment, good or bad. But if you delegate suddenly, you’ll likely place your directs and your business in peril. Instead, gradually dial up the level of delegation from showing them how to do something, to coaching them, and finally to being fully hands-off.

Instead of managing them, teach them how to manage up when they need your help. By scaling back your level of involvement in the day to day decisions, you create capable managers, reduce the chokehold on your schedule, and free time to look ahead.

2. Show vs. know. Newly responsible for areas outside her expertise, Sana felt compelled to rapidly acquire additional domain knowledge, but still, she lacked the expertise culled through years by members of her team. They didn’t need her to know more about the topic; they needed her to help them elevate how they thought about the topic.

Zoom out of the details and explore common threads to your success—how you make decisions, what types of questions you ask, when you sense early signs of trouble, and who you listen to for new opportunities. These skills can be applied no matter the content. Recognize that your meta-skills boost value and, in fact, add unique value to more detail-focused subject experts.

3. Connect vs. correct. Sana was initially liberal in her feedback to skip level employees. While most executives I coach say they understand the power of their positional authority, they usually don’t deeply comprehend its depths. It’s as though each rung of the corporate ladder brings them one step closer to amnesia. They don’t remember being the employee cued to their boss’ slightest twitch, as their team members are now tuned in to them. Take the time to connect with skip level employees by walking the hallways, expressing curiosity during meetings, or scheduling quarterly skip-level one-on-ones.

Be mindful of what you share during these sessions. A casual comment can cause an individual to catastrophize the future of their career or an entire team to cartwheel into motion. Deliberate connection averts course-corrections down the road when you realize the unintended impact of the metaphoric manager megaphone.

4. Curate vs. create. Sana was surprised at how many conversations were happening behind closed doors – doors closed to her because of her position. People complained about her insistence on attending design meetings and felt micromanaged; they worried about giving input on her ideas because she was senior. They stopped stretching their imaginations for innovative ideas because she generated so many herself.

The higher you are, the more your job becomes one of shaping the overall container of the work rather than filling up an old vessel with new content. The container consists of crafting the culture of the team, collecting themes from feedback, and reshaping how work gets done or decisions get made. By architecting a deliberate culture, you foster the safety needed for employees at all levels of the organization to surface problems before they fester.

5. Repeat vs. speed. A clear communicator used to move fast, Sana assumed people would act as soon as she spoke. This was yet another old pattern that no longer worked in her new position. It takes time for communication to drip down the chain. Don’t check important objectives off your list as a one-and-done. You’ve communicated sufficiently often, in different settings, and with enough people when you’re boring yourself with the message.

Ruthlessly prioritize the most important thing you want to communicate and set aside other concerns. If you communicate many things, you fail to spotlight the most important thing. Communicate one thing in different ways, over time. By showing up repeatedly with the same message you sharpen its seriousness and impact.

6. Integrate vs. isolate. Sana was fielding unaccustomed questions: personal ones. She felt her privacy threatened when employees wanted to know the type of car she drove, what she did in her spare time, and whether she liked dark or milk chocolate. People want to collapse the distance created through the hierarchy by understanding you better as a human being. It’s not idle curiosity behind this desire; who you are as a person shapes your values, which then determines how you prioritize and decide.

This impacts employees’ work lives in ways both minor and major. Consider proactively sharing elements about your shoes-off self that shed light on what matters to you. By integrating your personality and preferences into your communication strategy at work, others can better understand your decisions, save time otherwise spent in guesswork, and you role model the open, connected, the transparent culture you want to create.

There are changes when we switch to managing managers – both in how our direct reports like to be managed and what’s expected of us in our new jobs. What was once good management, now appears disempowering, disconcerting, and demanding.

Our intentions are still to be great managers, but we must adjust our expectations of what that looks like on a more senior perch of the corporate ladder.


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