In some ways, managing managers is similar to managing anyone else: you need to build a great team culture, cultivate strong relationships, get aligned on goals and expectations, stay engaged in the work, and create space for accountability and learning. The critical difference is that the work you’re overseeing and supporting is management. Sounds simple, but management is tricky because it’s both a technical and a relational skill. As the manager of a manager, you’re paying attention to the outcomes they lead their team to achieve and how they relate to their staff in the process.
On top of that, in traditional hierarchical structures, the manager/staff relationship has a built-in power dynamic. That’s what we call positional power—it’s part of your job to help your managers hold this power responsibly. This includes seeking to understand how their other identities (age, race, gender, etc.) and experiences with power and privilege intersect with their role at work.
Managing managers requires familiarity with management best practices, adaptability and responsiveness, and keen attention to equity and inclusion.
Here are six tips for managing managers:
1. Cultivate and affirm ownership.
One common challenge for many managers is “owning” their management. Owning management means embracing the responsibility that comes with positional power and increased organizational leadership. In most workplaces, positional power gives a manager real influence over the employee’s quality of life at work (how much they’re paid, how they get feedback, opportunities for advancement, their sense of belonging, etc.) and sometimes beyond (references for future jobs). These decisions require context (including knowledge of policies and ongoing bias checks) and a sense of responsibility for one’s authority.
Additionally, when you’re a manager, you’re not just on the hook for your performance and your work—you’re responsible for supporting someone else. This requires skill in coaching, delegating, and holding others accountable, where a manager’s approach can shape staff experience. Finally, managers can also have an outsized impact on the stress levels, emotional health, and sense of belonging of their teams (even when they don’t mean to), which is even more complicated when managing across lines of difference.
While many managers struggle with owning their management, authority, and influence, the “why” behind it may vary. Here are some possible reasons:
- Lack of confidence that comes with being new to a role
- Growing pains associated with a promotion (especially if the person is now managing their peers)
- Feelings of doubt exacerbated by bias and exclusion at interpersonal, organizational, and systemic levels
- Feeling nervous about having power and influence and not wanting to mess up
- They don’t enjoy management
Whatever the reason, the managers you manage will benefit from the time you invest to cultivate and affirm ownership over their sphere of influence, which is a core competency for their role.
2. Understand their management and leadership style.
Our Onboarding Planning Toolkit recommends that managers reflect on and share their management and leadership styles as part of the “getting to know you” portion of onboarding and developing relationships with new staff. This insight is also helpful for the manager’s manager because it gives you a sense of their strengths and growing edges and how you might support them. For example, if they are a big picture thinker who doesn’t tend to focus on details, they may be more likely to leave out important information when delegating assignments to their staff. As their manager, you might offer to help them prepare for delegation conversations by asking them to talk through the assignment’s 5 W’s.
3. Always be modeling.
There’s a higher bar for walking the talk when you manage other managers. If you delegate effectively, provide and solicit regular feedback, conduct effective check-ins, hire equitably, and examine your choice points, you’ll be modeling what they need to do in their own management. If you’re not walking the talk, you’ll send the wrong signals about how they should operate with their teams.
Of course, no one expects you to be perfect—in fact, it’s better if you don’t try to be. Instead, focus on being intentional and explicit about your management choices, self-reflect regularly, acknowledge when you make mistakes or see an opportunity to course-correct. They will learn from your transparency.
4. See them in action.
Find ways to see your managers in the act of managing (and then share your feedback and observations). You can do this by:
- Observing check-ins and other team meetings
- 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)
The purpose of observing or shadowing the people you manage isn’t just to give feedback—it can help you better understand their management and leadership style (see tip #2). It could even be an opportunity for you to learn from them. Pay attention to how they do things differently from you and appreciate those differences.
5. See the work in action, too.
As you have more layers of staff beneath you in a traditional hierarchical structure, it can be easy to fall out of touch with the work. Make sure to stay attuned to the work by building in time to observe, taking a slice of work, and/or asking to talk it through. For instance, if you’re a COO, you probably don’t need to know the minutiae of how your membership database works. Still, you should be on your organization’s membership mailing list so that you see what mailings look like when members receive them. Similarly, a deputy director in an organization focused on teacher recruitment might go on periodic recruitment visits to see what they look like in practice.
Doing this will equip you to shape higher-level strategy, help you spot equity implications of your decisions (and theirs), allow you to see whether something is going off-track so you can intervene, and model staying engaged.
6. Build relationships with your managers’ teams.
Building authentic relationships with your direct report’s direct reports has four significant benefits: First, it gives you a better sense of what’s happening on the ground. Second, when people know you, they are more likely to approach you if there’s a problem. Third, it makes it easier for you to talent scout internally and develop and retain staff. And finally, strong relationships across lines of difference and power lead to stronger team cultures and a greater sense of belonging.
You can get to know your managers’ teams by:
- Having a get-to-know-you coffee with new hires on your team
- Scheduling occasional lunches with team members to hear their thoughts on how things are going in a less formal setting (not in a meeting)
- Scheduling regular Skip-Level Meetings
- Connecting with staff during all-staff meetings, conferences, back-to-school nights, and other gatherings
- Participating in your team Slack or other messenger apps
Check out our Managing Managers Toolkit!