Seven Tips for Managing Managers

Managing people is one thing, but anyone with experience of managing managers will know that’s a completely different ball game. A management team that works in complete harmony is a rare and beautiful thing, but it never comes easy.

In fact, it’s paradoxical to think it should ever be that a group of people with strong leadership and management skills will operate without conflict for any length of time. The seven tips below highlight the most likely areas of contention and how to overcome these.

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Strategy and Planning

Do you have a clear strategy that sets out the medium to long-term (three to five years) vision for your business unit? Do you have a clear business plan that sets out specific business objectives for the current financial year? Although you can set targets and objectives for your managers without these, those can seem hollow and hard for them to fully engage with if they aren’t part of a coherent strategy and plan.

Make sure you fully understand the overall strategy and objectives that are driving the business at its core. Only then will you be able to set your own local plan that translates those higher-level aims into meaningful, measurable targets for your managers that facilitate them working in unison with each other and in alignment with the wider business.

More Leadership, Less Management

Remember, the more senior a manager you are, the more your role becomes about leadership rather than management. Of course you have to manage the performance of your managers and at times make decisions and give direct instructions to them, but remember they are managers.

They need direction, not solutions. Feel free to project your vision in all its glory, and give them guidance if they seek it, but let your managers manage. Let them figure the most effective path to get to the destination you’ve set for them.

You won’t always feel comfortable doing this, but take a deep breath and let it happen; allowing yourself to micro-manage is a slippery slope that rarely ends well. Stay on the bridge with your hands firmly on the wheel and stay out of the engine room, unless circumstances are exceptional.

Beware of Projects

Improvement is a buzzword in the board-room of any business. It’s synonymous with so many business objectives, from increased customer satisfaction to decreased cost. The trouble is, improvement doesn’t come without time and effort to drive change.

Businesses are typically very good at identifying potential projects that need to be undertaken to realise improvements, but don’t have nearly the same appetite to invest in the skill and resource to bring them to fruition. Too often it is wrongly assumed that project management is a core-skill of any manager. Engage your managers in defining a business case and requirements, but if you have a project management or business improvement resource within your business, then hand over to them to initiate a project once you have a green light. You might not get the results as quickly as you’d like, but you run the risk of a failed project or worse if you saddle your managers with unrealistic workloads.

Acknowledge and Reward

Managers tend to be conscientious types, often more than willing to go the extra mile; working late, at weekends or outside their normal jurisdiction without any recompense. By all means take advantage of this when you can, but be willing to give some payback from time to time.

Managers are rarely paid overtime, yet understand better than most that sometimes the business needs a little more of them than usual. But be mindful when a little becomes a lot, and when this starts to become the rule rather than the exception. If your managers feel they are being taken for granted or treated unfairly they will become disillusioned and disengaged. Sustain that position for too long and you will lose them.

Simple acknowledgement of efforts beyond the call of duty goes a long way, but sometimes more tangible recognition is called for. This doesn’t have to be financial; be creative, but find ways to reward when it’s due.

Know your People

Take the time to get to know your managers as people as well as professionals. It can be tough to fit regular one to one meetings into busy diaries, but they essential; overlook them at your peril.

Make sure those conversations strike a balance between the person and the business tasks at hand. Losing sight of the human being is dangerous as you need to connect on a personal level to get the best out of them. If you don’t you also risk missing early warning signs that they may be struggling with workload, or with circumstances outside work that are affecting their performance in work.

Busy managers may also struggle to network, even within their own management community. Make sure you create the opportunities to facilitate a good rapport between all your direct reports, inside or outside of the workplace. It’s likely that their roles and responsibilities overlap to some degree, so their relationship with each other is just as important as their relationship with you.

Just like in sport, a group of highly talented individuals don’t necessarily make a good team. You need to work on that, and it will pay dividends in more open communications and more collaborative working.

Trust and Honesty

Managers who feel under pressure will often find ways to hide areas of inadequacy or underperformance for fear of the consequences. Building a culture of trust and honesty with your managers has to start with you. Lead by example and encourage them to share their struggles and concerns. Show them it is safe to do so, but challenge them to come up with solutions, not just problems.

This can feel like walking a tightrope at times, as you need to maintain respect amongst the group and for your authority, so be clear on lines that cannot be crossed. However, allow them to feel comfortable expressing themselves fully. Set boundaries, but ensure you have protected time behind closed doors to allow for open and honest exchanges. Consider drawing up a management charter to set basic rules of engagement to create an uninhibited but safe environment.

Support and Backing

If you’re under pressure from your manager, it’s easy to transfer this to your direct reports. Some will say that the best managers are those that delegate, and don’t shy away from doing that, but resist the temptation to use delegation as a means to simply palm off the tasks you don’t like or feel comfortable with.

Delegate fairly and provide support and guidance when sought of you and be willing to share the load sometimes. Recognise when it’s appropriate for you to step in to back your managers when they need you to pull rank, or when an initiative or key communication needs visible endorsement from someone more senior.

There will also be times when you need to push back against your own manager’s demands and expectations where these are not realistic or reasonable, to protect your team. You will need the facts and figures to do this effectively, but ultimately the buck stops with you and you must be willing to have these difficult conversations. You will strengthen the trust and respect from your managers if they know you have their back and they will offer you the same support and loyalty in return.

The subtleties of approach you take to tackle these seven areas will be dependent on the specific personalities you are managing, but if you’re paying regular attention to them all, you’ll find your life a whole lot easier. You’ll also have managers who are more likely to be relaxed, communicative and able to perform to their full potential. It’s never a case of ‘one size fits all’ and you may need to experiment with different styles, so don’t be dis-heartened if something doesn’t work first time. Eventually you’ll establish working practices that fit, and you’ll never look back.