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How to Manage Managers

A group of business people talking in an office.

​Managing a team is one thing. Managing a team of managers is a whole different ballgame. Not only do you have to support your managers as individuals, you also have to ensure they are supporting their workers as well.

"There's a big difference between managing a team of individual contributors who aren't managing anyone else" and supervising other managers, said Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and host of The Sydcast podcast, who studies "superbosses"—leaders who cultivate other leaders.

For Finkelstein, the key to managing managers starts with modeling the kind of leadership that you want them to emulate.

Then, get "to know [your managers] as individuals," he said. "Everyone is so different, so it's about customizing how you work with people."

Bart Turczynski, the director of content and SEO at ResumeLab, a Guaynabo, Puerto Rico-based resume writing company, has found this to be true in his experience.

"I currently have six managers who report to me. Each has a distinct personality and style, so I try to tailor my approach to each of them," he said. He uses personality assessments to help him not only understand the different needs and styles of his direct reports, but also craft the different approaches he takes with each of them.

"For example, I will be stat-heavy with my thinker/analytical IT manager when explaining an issue but come from a more emotional place with my extrovert/expressive customer service manager," Turczynski said.

The next thing to focus on is coaching. For Finkelstein, this means imparting lessons that can help managers in their roles.

One approach might be exploratory: helping your subordinate think through and discover solutions on her own.

If a subordinate comes to Finkelstein asking for advice, "I want to know how you thought about the problem, what research you've done, and what the barrier is as I help you think through the issue," Finkelstein said. "The lesson is not just both of you figuring it out, but explaining and making clear that this is how [the managers] should be working with [their] own team members."

A central challenge to consider is that you will likely need to supervise new managers. Since it's typical for companies and organizations to promote people to management roles based on performance—rather than people management skills—this can mean the new manager faces a steep learning curve.

"There are so many mistakes that first-time managers make, because they're often not trained to be a manager," Finkelstein said, adding that companies often don't give first-time managers the resources they need to be successful as people leaders. Hence, patience and coaching will go a long way to develop them into effective managers.

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Beyond teaching the managers on your team how to manage, you should also focus on "sponsoring" them, as Finkelstein puts it.

"It's a very important concept," he said. "It means not only mentoring, but when you find that there are people on your team who are ready for the next stage or to take on more responsibility, you sponsor them by advocating for them with your boss or your colleagues to make it more likely that they're going to get that next opportunity."

Sponsoring is especially crucial for some managers on your team—for instance, women and minorities—who may find themselves with fewer opportunities for advancement. "Really think about yourself as the sponsor of talent … to develop that overall talent pool," Finkelstein said.

Finally, successful managers of managers delegate and avoid micromanaging. Now that you're managing a team of managers who have ideally proven their ability to handle responsibility, be sure to respect that. "Avoid being a micromanager, but still be hands on," Finkelstein said. "Superbosses will delegate a lot to the people on their teams, but will also be quite hands-on in providing feedback, coaching and teaching."

Dean Guida, CEO of Infragistics, a Cranbury, N.J.-based company that offers UX and UI tools for developers, accomplishes this by giving each of his managers a budget for hiring and operating expenses. Then he lets them use the budget as they see fit. While he doesn't dictate how money is spent, he makes it clear that he wants to be kept in the loop on their decisions, then offers guidance only when absolutely necessary.

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.


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