How to Manage Managers

A reader asks:

For the first time, I’m managing people who also manage others. How do I manage their management — in other words, what do I need to do to ensure that they’re not just producing work, but also managing their teams well?”


In some ways, managing managers is similar to managing anyone else – in that you need to build a great team, get aligned on goals and expectations on the front end, monitor the work and engage along the way, and create accountability and learning on the back end. But the key difference is that the work you’re overseeing is management – as opposed to other types of work, like organizing, communications, operations, or fundraising.

When you’re managing, say, a trainer, you’d set expectations around that training work, check in the work as it’s ongoing, observe and give feedback on trainings, and assess the trainer’s results. But when you’re managing a manager, you’d do all those things around management: set expectations up-front for what good management looks like, observe and give feedback on the person’s management, and so forth.

Here are five keys to doing that well.

1. Shift the focus of the time you spend with managers. With individual contributors, you’d (hopefully) spend your time together digging into the details of specific projects. But with managers, you’ll dig into the details of their management. For example, in a check-in with an individual contributor, you might ask, “How is project Z going?” But with a manager, you might ask, “How are you checking in with Rochelle to know how project Z is going?” Or rather than asking, “How could you have done Z better?” you instead might ask, “How could you have managed Rochelle to do Z better?”

2. Know that you’ll teach by modeling, whether you want to or not. When you’re managing, say, organizers, you’re probably not modeling organizing skills in everything you do. But when you’re managing other managers, you won’t be able to avoid modeling management behaviors for your staff members – and that can be good or bad. If you’re delegating effectively, providing useful and regular feedback, conducting useful check-ins, hiring wisely, and so forth, you’ll be modeling exactly what they need to be good at themselves. (And of course, if you’re not, you’ll be sending the wrong signals about how they should be operating with their own teams.)

3. See managers in action. Just like you find ways to see other types of work in action when you’re managing “do-ers” (like attending a meeting with a prospective funder to hear your staff member’s pitch), you should also find ways to see your managers in the act of managing. You can do this by activities like the following (and then giving feedback on what you observed):

  • occasionally observing check-ins and other team meetings (strategy meetings, etc.)
  • watching a manager give feedback (or role-playing a tough feedback conversation)
  • going on site visits together
  • conducting job interviews together
  • reviewing performance evaluations before they go out (or a sample of them)

4. See the work in action too. As you have more layers of staff beneath you, it can be easy to fall out of touch with how the work is actually being carried out. Make sure to keep a hand in the layer where the work ultimately plays out, particularly when it comes to the pieces of work that are most crucial to your organization. You can do this by observing, taking samples, and/or taking a slice of work and asking to talk through how it’s playing out. For instance, if you’re a COO, you probably don’t need to know the minutiae of how your membership database works, but you should be on your organization’s membership mailing list so that you see what mailings look like when members receive them. Similarly, a CFO might sample a few receipts and how they’re coded by an accountant, or a deputy director in an organization focused on teacher recruitment might go on periodic recruitment visits to see what they really look like in practice.

Doing this will (a) better equip you to help shape higher-level strategy, (b) help you to know whether something is going off-track and you need to intervene, and (c) model to the managers under you a key way that they should be operating as well.

5. Get to know your managers’ teams. Getting to know the people who your staff members manage – and allowing them to get to know you – has three key benefits: First, it will give you a much better sense of how things are playing out on the ground. Second, when people know you, they’ll be more likely to approach you if there’s a problem that you should hear about. And third, it will make it easier for you to spot the next wave of upcoming talent in your realm and help cultivate the best people lower down on your team (after all, some of the people who are currently several layers below you might be your direct reports some day!).

You can get to know your managers’ teams through things like the following:

  • having a get-to-know-you coffee with all new hires two or more levels below you
  • occasionally scheduling lunch with individual team members to hear their thoughts on how things are going
  • conducting exit interviews for staff members who leave

(In all of these activities, be transparent with all parties involved that your objectives are to better understand the experience of everyone on the team and to spot opportunities to be a helpful coach for the manager.)