Techniques for Managing Managers

In many ways, effectively managing managers requires a similar approach to managing individual contributors: it requires getting aligned on the expectations of the job and what success looks like, actively staying engaged in their work, investing in their development and giving feedback along the way. However, since being a manager requires a different set of skills and mindsets than being an individual contributor, you’ll need to be intentional about cultivation of and ongoing attention to your manager’s ability to achieve results with and through others.

Most new managers are going through a difficult shift from doing the work to guiding it. That means that when you’re managing managers, you also need to shift from guiding their individual work to guiding their management.

One way to think about how to “manage the management” is to be intentional both in what you discuss and in what you do. It’s important to both use your check-in time wisely, focusing specifically on their management work, and also to carve out enough time to see slices of the action and model good management in practice.

Below are techniques within each category that could work in multiple areas of management:

1. What you discuss: Explicitly talk about and review the manager’s management in your conversations.
Ask probing questions about the manager’s management.What support will your staff most need from you to stay on track?” Provide direct feedback on their management.I want to share some observations from watching you lead the staff retreat…” Talk through upcoming management actions. Discuss their plan to delegate a new project to a staff member.
Role-play a management conversation. Practice an upcoming feedback conversation they are planning. Debrief their management-related work. Talk about what worked and what didn’t in a recent strategic planning session. Review a slice of their management-related work. Review and discuss a draft of their team’s goals for the year.
2. What you do: Show-up and participate. Observe and model the management in action.
Observe the manager managing. Sit in on a one-on-one check-in with a staff member, then debrief afterward. Work side-by-side with the manager. Co-lead a set of interviews with job candidates. Prepare and debrief together. Help with key pieces of management. Work together to create role descriptions for the two new positions they’re adding.
Model the management work. Lead meetings to recruit potential job candidates; have them observe one, then co-lead a couple. Observe the manager’s staff in action. Go with the manager to a set of site visits to observe staff working with their volunteers. Get to know the manager’s staff. Plan a day to work out of the manager’s office when the team is all there.

Below, you’ll see what you should be holding managers to in key areas of management, and examples of what to discuss or do to help make that happen:

Within this area, make sure the manager… What you might discuss: What you might do:

…is guiding their staff, not doing all the work. Make sure they’re not rushing when delegating; they should take the time to discuss expectations up front and guide staff to succeed by staying engaged and holding them accountable for their results.

Review a slice of the staff person’s work with the manager. Ask, “Do you think they are on track? What feedback will you give them? How can you make sure they succeed without doing the work for them?” Shadow the manager delegating work to their staff. Debrief with them afterward to discuss how they did at passing ownership of the work to their staff.

…is writing goals so each staff person is aligned on how to measure success in their job. In particular, they should make sure goals are clear, measurable, outcome-focused and relatively few in number. They should check progress to create accountability and ensure goals are effectively driving their work.

Help them start to think of their team’s goals. Ask, “What would be a big success for your team this year? What do you want the team to achieve? How will you know you’ve achieved that?” Train the manager in writing effective SMARTIE goals (strategic, measurable, ambitious, realistic, time-bound, inclusive, and equitable). Include the staff in that training, or help prepare the manager to train their staff.

…holds regular one-on-one check-ins with each staff person. In particular, make sure they’re not getting stuck only on the challenges of the moment. They should think ahead about what’s most important to discuss and make sure they’re spending time on the big picture.

Talk through a check-in agenda template and why each section is valuable. Discuss key objectives to achieve in check-ins, like checking progress on goals and projects, addressing obstacles, aligning on priorities, debriefing and building trust. Observe a check-in with the manager and their staff. Afterward, debrief with the manager. Ask, “What worked? What didn’t? What was a good use of time or not? Why? What do you want to do differently or similarly next time?”

…puts the time and effort into building a high-quality, diverse pool of candidates. They should develop exercises that test for the must-have qualities they’re looking for to make sure they’re finding the best of the best.

Discuss the plan for building the candidates pool. Ask, “What kind of mass marketing and headhunting will you do?” Review what worked and what didn’t from a previous plan. Screen a set of candidates together. Ask, “Which of these would you pick to advance? Why? What signaled they might have the must-haves we’re looking for? Who are you a no or maybe on? Why?”
Giving Feedback:

…is giving timely and constructive feedback. Focus in particular on making sure they’re not soft-peddling the message of what needs improvement and the consequences if it doesn’t improve.

Discuss or role-play feedback they plan to give. Ask, “What did you see that you’re concerned about? What was the impact of that? When do you plan to give this feedback? How will you bring it up?” If the manager is dealing with a serious performance issue, participate in the feedback conversation. Model key components that need to be clear. Follow-up to debrief the conversation with the manager.
Equity and Inclusion:

… builds and maintains a diverse team and creates a level playing field where each person is set up to succeed. They should be explicit about expectations, seek to understand and incorporate different viewpoints, and examine ways in which bias, identity, and power might impact their management.

Talk through common patterns of bias in evaluation to surface where bias might be impacting their assessment of and communication with their staff. Ask, “How might this be playing out in how you’re managing and evaluating your team?” Shadow the manager and team in meetings to identify patterns like who talks most, who can participate fully, whose ideas are valued, etc. and how those patterns might relate to race, gender, age, culture, position in the org, relationships, etc.