Welcome to the pen-ultimate office hours post, discussing real life workplace challenges. Leadership should not be a lonely endeavour. I’m a leadership coach and I’ll help you shine your leadership light bright.

Challenge #5 – How do I step up to manage managers


I’ve accepted a new role in a new group, where I’ll be managing managers for the first time. It’s definitely a more senior position and I’m excited for the opportunity. I was successful in leading my last team, despite realising that my manager there had different views on team dynamics and leadership than I did. I want to do a good job, but know that managing managers is different from leading individual contributors. I really want to hit the ground running but know that I’ll be ‘the new manager’ in a team where I have no existing relationships.
J.D. (no their real name)

Congratulations on your new role! You’re at another transition point. Are you open and ready to embrace new experiences. Take a breath and, pause.

You get to choose how you think and feel about stepping into this new role!

How do you choose to see this next role? Exciting, challenging, invigorating, rich, rewarding; stressful, difficult, uncertain, awkward? 

You have some time before taking up the new position.

What would like to have happen in this time?

I’m a big fan of reflective practice. Making the time and space to regularly reflect is an important part of learning, and developing self-awareness. This may be a good time to establish a reflective practice of your own.

Building resources

What resources can you access to support you stepping in to the new role?

Start with yourself first!

Acknowledge your own wisdom.

Think about your own managers (who managed managers). What behaviours do you appreciate about each of them? How did they support your success?

Which behaviours were unhelpful or damaging?

If you take stock of your strengths and skills that you bring, what do you need to work on? What personal development resources are available to you? What’s on your new personal development plan?

The 2 sides of self-awareness

Reflect on your work style and preferences. As a manager of individual contributors you sometimes need to be  highly directive. This may be received as micro managing for your new managers. Being able to flex your working style will increase your capability. The Hershey and Blanchard’s model of Situational Leadership (1969) describes how you might flex your approach. Interestingly Google’s Project Oxygen reveals that top of their list of 10 behaviours of successful managers is “be a good coach”.

Consider this: as a manager of ICs you were happiest when your manager didn’t micromanage you. Did you value autonomy, or being in control? That will show up differently in your new role. 

It’s one thing to know what you value being on the receiving end of (the ‘inside’ of self awareness) and another thing entirely to be aware of what you naturally serve out (the ‘outside’ of self-awareness – how you are perceived).

Who are your stakeholders?

Think about your new peer managers. How might you leverage that network? How might they be of value. How might you tap their combined wisdom. How are they co-creating the culture of the workplace.

Ask for feedback

..it’s quite possible that you don’t yet fully understand or realize all the things you do that make YOU a great front line manager.
Archbold, 2016

Who might you ask for specific feedback from amongst a small group that you trust?

  • Identify the strengths you bring due to your work-style
  • Identify the challenges you pose due to your work-style
  • Consider writing your own user manual, as an exercise in self-reflection

Managing upwards

What relationship do you want with your new manager? What do you need from them? What do they need you to know? What are their style preferences?

An early task may be to design your alliance with that new manager. If your first 1-1 meeting with them was focused on designing how you work together, what are your expectations, requirements, and questions?

Observe the impact of your managers

One data signal on how your managers are doing is to talk to the people they are managing. Having skip-level 1-to-1s with them provides useful observations to share with your direct report. Meeting this group, individually or together also allows you to stay connected with your organisation. It’s your platform to support your managers by sharing vision, values and reinforcing your manager’s work.

How might staying connected with your organisation be beneficial for you?

Request: What are 10 different ways you might stay connected with your organisation?

Know your managers

Your direct reports are all competent and manage individual contributors. You know what their job is about because you’ve been there. 

Your direct reports are at a more similar senior level. Investing your time in their growth and ongoing development will be a big multiplier in overall results. What are their individual strengths and weaknesses? What drives and motivates each of them? Who are they as people? How can you provide them with opportunities for autonomy and mastery whilst still delivering on business goals?

What are their stressors and triggers?

What do they value?

What’s their purpose/vision/goal?

You cannot not be a role model

Recent research supports the notion that people learn how to lead from their bosses (Finkelstein, 2016).

If you’re a laissez-faire manager, distant and detached, don’t be surprised when that is amplified down through your organisation.

Despite your own opinions of hierarchy, your position carries the weight of authority, whether you like it or not. Your words and actions impact (as does the absence of them).

How might you use that to your advantage, to support the success of your managers?

Amy Gallo observes what and who you praise in public gets noticed. Showing that you value and trust your leaders in front of their teams has influence (Gallo, 2016).

A personal development plan

What got you here won’t get you there
Goldsmith, 2008

As Goldsmith notes, it’s possible that you reached your position despite your behaviours, not because of them (2008).

What new capabilities will serve you best in your new team?

If your success is increasingly linked to the success of your teams, then how best can you grow the capabilities of those groups? How best can you ensure the development of talent, including leadership talent, through your org?

If you could choose how you showed up in your new role, how would you?

What will you say ‘yes’ to doing, and being?
What will you say ‘no’ to doing, and being?
Be deliberate in choosing how you will be, and plan for you continued development – there’s so much more to learn.

What would you offer JD to lighten the load of this leadership challenge? Please add to the comments. And share your feedback about this office hours leadership challenge. Please re-share this article if you know people for whom it may resonate.

Further Reading

There’s a great deal of excellent material on this subject. Some of the sources I found useful are below.

Archbold, R. (2018) 5 things I learned the hard way as a manager of managers (blog) Noteworthy – The Journal Blog, January 19. Available from https://blog.usejournal.com/5-things-i-learned-the-hard-way-as-a-manager-of-managers-2bd97c29873 [Accessed: 02 October 2019].

Finkelstein, S. (2016) Secrets of the Superbosses (article). Harvard Business Review, January-February. Available from https://hbr.org/2016/01/secrets-of-the-superbosses [Accessed: 04 October 2019].

Finkelstein, S. (2018) The Best Leaders are Great Teachers (article). Harvard Business Review, January-February. Available from https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-best-leaders-are-great-teachers [Accessed: 03 October 2019].

Gallo, A. (2016) How to Manage Managers (article). Harvard Business Review, August 29. Available from https://hbr.org/2016/08/how-to-manage-managers [Accessed: 03 October 2019].

Goldsmith, M. (2008) What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Hyperion, USA.

Reitz, M., Higgins, J. (2019) Managers, You’re More Intimidating Than You Think (article). Harvard Business Review, July 18. Available from https://hbr.org/2019/07/managers-youre-more-intimidating-than-you-think [Accessed: 06 October 2019].