Managing managers: Is it different?

As careers’ progress, many people aspire to become a manager and progress upwards to director, vice president and executive levels. As promotions occur, a question that I am often asked is whether there is a difference in how leaders manage a team of individual contributors versus a team of managers?

I believe that there is. Yet some managers fail to adapt their management style quickly enough and as a result, have difficulty achieving their new responsibilities and objectives.

After many years as an individual contributor at IBM, I was promoted to my first management position. I was excited and full of pride of accomplishment. In congratulating me, a friend and veteran leader said: “Welcome to the worst job in IBM”. Confused, I asked him what he meant. Cynically, he explained that first-line managers manage individual contributors, who may be limited in their perspectives, less mature in their outlook and more self-centred in their interests. As a result, they are likely to complain or be critical of leadership when decisions do not favour them, such as not getting a raise or promotion, not getting the customer territory or project they want, or being assigned work that they feel they should not have to do.

As a manager, I would have no similar rights. My job was to stand behind company decisions and deliver results. Now, as a first line manager, my boss would be less inclined to listen to my complaints about any perceived unfairness. I was the meat in the middle of the sandwich of sometimes opposing forces.

My bubble was burst. After years as an individual contributor, I had more than my fair share of negative opinions about the way things worked or decisions made at IBM. Previously, I had been open to share them (which is why it likely took me so long to be promoted to management). Now, I had to figure out how I balance the obligation to “salute the flag” while at the same time staying authentic to myself and my employees, who would often point out their perception of the stupidity of decisions being made (as I had in the past).

The reality that I soon learned was that decisions like the ones that I had decried in the past were not all stupid, (some were just the best alternative from a set of lousy options). One problem was decisions were not transparently communicated or discussed in a way that would allow everyone to see the logic and analysis behind the decision. As well, at times, the rationale for some decisions could not be fully disclosed for reasons of confidentiality, privacy or because they were first in a series of decisions made over time, that when all put together make sense. There were also times when I still disagreed with the decision, but once of the arguments were made behind closed door and the decision taken, my job was to openly and proactive support the decision. The alternative was to leave and find a new job.

This led me to having to find my own style that allowed me to continue to be authentic while communicating decisions in a way that I could help my team rationalize and accept. I had to learn to explain the not just the “what” but the “why” in a way that was appropriate to a wider audience who were often at very different levels of business acumen, motivation, maturity, awareness, experience, and perspective. As a first line manager, I think I got pretty good at this.

As my levels of responsibility increased, I became a manager who only managed other managers and my style had to change. I was now managing others who were the “meat in the sandwich”. By the nature of their roles, I could hold them more accountable, expect them to operate with greater autonomy and insist on their support of decisions that may not have been their first choice. I now had to teach them the techniques that I had learned as a first line manager. We could still have passionate debates and fierce arguments, but when the time came for decision-making, as leaders, we all needed to line up behind the decision.

As I mentor higher management potential leaders, I find some who do not realize the need to adapt their management style as they are promoted from first to second line managers and above. They continue to make allowances for their managers in the same way they would for an individual contributor instead of explaining to them their new role and its expectations.

A mentor of mine once explained that as a leader moves into higher levels of their organization, their business day slices into finer increments of time and deals with a greater volume of issues. As a result, leaders are called upon to make more decisions with less time to deliberate them and with less information and analysis available upon which to make the correct decision.

To be successful, more tasks and issues must be delegated to their leaders below and these leaders must often step up to situations that are a stretch or make decisions that may be “above their pay grade”. In turn, these leaders may have to similarly delegate work down to their leaders to make room to deal with the assignments from their boss. If those leaders are still stuck managing their employees with the management style that they used as a first line manager, they will struggle to scale.

So what do leaders need to do to overcome these challenges? Here is my simple list.

1.      First, recognize that your job as a leader changes as you move from managing individual contributors to managing managers and will continue to evolve as you move higher.

2.      Recognize the need to be able to explain and sell decisions to people with different levels of business acumen, maturity, experience, and levels of responsibility. I often do this by engaging with them, sharing what facts I can, as appropriate, and asking what they would do if it were their decision. As they suggest their choices, this leads to discussions of things they had not considered and leads them to understand complexities that may have not been apparent to them before. They may still not like the decision made, but they will understand it and be better able to explain and support it. This requires investment of time but has handsome payback because it both creates support for decisions made as well as raising business acumen and critical thinking skills.

3.      Ensure your employees who are promoted understand their new responsibilities and that the performance bar and expectations on them have risen, sometimes very significantly. Resist the temptation to coddle them in their new job. As their manager, your responsibility is to put guardrails around them, not to ride co-pilot on their job.

I hope this helps and as always, your thoughts and feedback is welcome.

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