Managing Managers



Managing managers is a common step in any Engineering Manager’s career path. As a mid-level manager, your main focus has probably been to execute through others. Once you get to a senior level, you are expected to lead through others. I have been reading about this topic lately, so here is a recap of what I learned.

  • Coaching becomes even more important than before. You will be coaching coaches. Therefore, you will help them explore their coaching style that they can apply to others. Sort of meta-coaching. But also, you have to coach managers to develop the culture and capabilities that their teams need. When managing individual contributors (IC), you spend time talking about the specifics of their work. With managers, you will also need to explore their relationships with their direct reports. Talk explicitly about how they are coaching and giving feedback.

  • Mentoring is now possible again. As a senior IC, you may have had the chance to mentor junior ICs in your area of expertise. When you became a manager, you were at the bottom of the ladder all over again. You could probably still mentor engineers on soft-skills, leadership and other cross-functional areas. But now, you will have direct access to people that are hopefully passionate about your main area of expertise. It is a perfect opportunity to dust off your mentoring books and get to it again.

  • Autonomy is key, and you should create the space and resist the temptation to jump in to solve other people’s problems. This is not a strange feeling to someone that has gone from IC to manager, but the impact of failing to do so now is bigger. Of course, still look out for signals to understand if there are issues and act promptly.

  • Provide clear vision and direction. This was important when managing ICs, but chances are you were collaborating to create a vision or, given a high level vision by someone else, you made sense of it for your team. As a senior leader, people will go to you for direction even more than before, and managers will take your vision and apply it to the localities of their own teams. Be mindful of that. Sometimes it is not about your own personal vision, but the company’s vision, and it could happen that you will have to disagree and commit. Remember to communicate the status of the company often to build alignment.

  • You have more stakeholders than ever before, as you will likely be indirectly responsible for multiple teams. It is important to understand the power dynamics of your stakeholders and support your manager reports in navigating their own. You will also have to deal with clashing priorities and resolve conflicting points of view more often than before, and be the escalation point in even more scenarios. Therefore, you should manage your managers' expectations from the get go.

  • You cannot be a domain expert anymore. The further away you are from the trenches, the harder it is to keep up with the details. Train your managers in finding their own answers, because you won’t be able to provide them for much longer.

  • Managers also care about their own growth. This is obvious for ICs, but maybe not so much for managers. We tend to focus on others more than ourselves. It is our responsibility to ensure opportunities for growth are available for our managers and these will be of a different type when compared to ICs. We also need to make sure growth conversations are taking place. Help them realise they are growing. Some of those managers will be first time managers, and in many companies there isn’t good training available, so be mindful of that too.

  • You will be judged by your actions even more than before. It is important to model the right behaviour, and not only in meetings but all the time. Act like you want your managers to act and lead by example. Not doing an action sometimes is also an action.

  • Give praise where deserved, to your managers too, and in public. The people who report to your direct reports will look to you for clues about how they should feel about their managers. Giving praise to the reports of your report can boost their confidence too.

  • Use skip level meetings to know the whole team. You want to be familiar with the team but not be in a position where you hear from them things they are not telling their manager, as that would undermine their authority. The goal is to better understand the team and help the manager.

  • Evaluate managers on the bigger picture. Success is no longer defined at the individual level. You should judge the success of a manager by the success of their teams.

  • Take a step back from day to day execution. As a mid-level manager, it is still possible to get involved at a lower level on occasions. As senior manager, management activities will occupy 100% of your time (or even more, so remember to push back or delegate when it makes sense to do so).

  • Focus on alignment and external communication. Your role shifts from making sure tasks are done to ensuring that what is being done is aligned with the overall product and business needs. You will also likely have to interface with people from disciplines other than your own and be able to communicate and coordinate projects with them.

What is not so different? In some ways, managing managers is similar to managing anyone else, you need to align their goals with yours, provide feedback and help them advance their careers.

Thanks to Mattia and Pedro V for sharing their thoughts on this topic.

Happy managing!