When it comes to knowing how to manage managers, you need to recognize that middle managers play a special role in your company. One of the challenges middle managers face is that they have to be both followers and leaders: One second they’re directing their team, and the next they’re reporting to upper management. Harvard Business Review refers to this as “vertical code-switching.”
Because middle managers are in this unique position in your company hierarchy, you need to manage them accordingly. Below, we explore the techniques that can be used more effectively to manage managers.
1. Model Desired Behavior—Don’t Dictate It
People learn how to lead from their bosses—so figuring out how to manage managers starts with you. You can’t just tell your managers to fix something; you have to show them how you would go about any situation so they can emulate it.
Think about the onboarding process for a new manager: They enter your company as someone with an authoritative title, but they need to earn the respect of their team. Your role is to integrate your managers into your company as smoothly as possible. When it comes to onboarding and training, you want to put them in positions where they can claim their authority. Help them set up and plan introduction meetings with their direct reports, but let them take charge and lead the meeting. That way, all eyes are on the middle manager and not on you trying to mold the manager into something they’re not.
And when it’s your turn to lead meetings with other middle managers, be aware of how you communicate. Your middle managers may be like sponges around you, and as an authority figure, you want to show that you are open to feedback. If you are transparent about your thought processes and consider your phrasing, your managers follow suit.
2. Determine Success Based on Individual and Project Metrics
When considering how to manage managers, you must evaluate managers based both on their team’s performance and on their ability to nurture, engage, and develop their team in the long term.
While you still need to look at how your managers manage their team, you can gain a sense of where they are successful and where there are areas for improvement based on their team’s projects. When you think about project metrics, you may consider the following:
- Scope of Work: What steps are required to ensure that the project is successful? Does the team have the tools for what they need to accomplish?
- Productivity: How long does it take for team members to complete their tasks?
- Quality of Work: Are clients happy with the outcome? Are your managers?
These metrics are pretty standard and serve their purpose, but we’re going for great work that makes your team members happy to work at your company. Evaluate managers on things like employee development and retention—basically, how is your manager encouraging team members to grow at your company? Because if the project was completed on time, but the whole team is burnt out, your manager didn’t manage things very well.
Great managers look at individual metrics just like a project: Their project is to lead their teams to success. So how do you keep an eye on individual metrics to evaluate your managers? Consider how they emphasize company values. Look at how your managers support their team members. Is it with flexibility, resources, or educational tools? Examine how proactive your managers are when it comes to solving roadblocks or challenges. Are you the one who has to bring it up, or do they come to you with solutions?
3. Hold Skip-Level Meetings to Better Inform Managers
Skip-level meetings allow you to gain a sense of your managers’ managerial styles. With the information you gather from their direct team members, you gain insights that enable you to offer your managers actionable feedback.
While the primary purpose of skip-level meetings is to get to know employees, they’re also a great chance to learn more about your managers. You gain insight into how managers empower their team members by how each team member discusses their individual triumphs and tribulations. Don’t go into these meetings looking for gossip—instead, remain receptive to what you learn. Maybe one team member describes how their manager gives intensive, direct mentorship opportunities, while another team member on a different team notes that they enjoy how their manager lets people operate more independently. You can’t make it a comparison game between managers, but you can keep a list of what team members look for in their managers.
Once you’ve completed skip-level meetings for each department, make sure to set up one-on-one meetings with each manager to share your findings. While managers know the skip-level meeting’s agenda, they may not know how their team members feel about processes or where more support is needed. Information from these skip-level meetings informs the kind of work and opportunities you give each manager so they can continue to bring their strengths to their team while working toward finding solutions that help them and their team members discover their potential.
4. Use One-on-Ones to Coach Potential
When people hear “meeting,” they tend to think that the meeting’s agenda focuses on project or team updates. Instead, use your one-on-one time to coach your managers’ potential so they can grow within their role.
Middle managers contribute a lot to your company; they implement company policies and processes across the company and act as a sounding board to their team members. Your one-on-one meetings should be the same thing, where they can talk through ideas with you and figure out where they can grow.
Managing managers comes down to how you embrace your role in your managers’ leadership coaching. One way is to emphasize curiosity: Ask managers how they would approach situations, whether that’s finding a new tool for the graphics team to use or figuring out a way to support an employee experiencing burnout. That way, you can determine the “how/why” with them as a way to build up their confidence and problem-resolution skills.
Remember to give your managers autonomy to run their projects and teams. Your one-on-one meetings are opportunities to remind managers that you’re in their back pocket if they get stuck and need support.
Managing Managers Is About Managing Relationships
Knowing how to manage managers requires you to take a step back and look at how you manage relationships: through open communication. Acknowledge your managers’ daily responsibilities, and give them opportunities to show off their expertise and managerial skills. Your acknowledgment builds your managers’ confidence and allows them to grow into their zones of genius. And when managers get in their zones, they feel empowered to present ideas that will help your team members succeed for years to come.