Succeed wildly as a front-line or first-time manager, and chances are good you’ll wake up one day and head to work and learn that everything has changed again. The disorienting promotion to manager of managers is one that receives less coverage than the plight of the first-time manager, yet the difficulty factor is similar.

Succeeding as a manager of managers is another career adventure steeped in ambiguity and shrouded in uncertainty. This article offers ideas to help you successfully navigate your new job as a manager of managers.

The Move to Managing Managers is Disorienting and Unsettling

As a direct manager, you’re intimately attuned to the activities of your team members. You know their moods, headaches, ideas, and to-do lists. You spend your time engaging with them, monitoring their progress, coaching, and where needed, pitching in and helping.

As a manager of managers, the people and their daily work activities are one-degree of separation from your visibility. Your job is helping and engaging with their manager, and at the onset of your new role, this is disorienting.

Having experienced this as well as coached many making this transition, the start-up as a manager of managers is unsettling. It takes time to acclimate and figure out your new job. And frankly, for many who thrive on the thrill of the daily challenges (think: front-line sales or customer support manager), it’s not as much fun.

Some who manage managers fail to shift their focus, inserting themselves into the team and individual activities, not necessarily out of a drive for control, but because, they’re not sure what else to do.

Constantly sticking your nose in your old job is unsettling to everyone in the process. It’s confusing to the team and just plain aggravating to the direct manager.

Change Your View and Change Your Focus

Successfully transitioning to the manager of managers demands an immediate shift of your focus. Think: zooming out a few hundred feet on Google earth to look at a larger picture. Your concerns include now more than ever, your boss’s priorities, the organization’s strategies and key objectives, and your commitment to supporting your manager as they strive to develop and succeed as a front-line manager. And of course, your peer relationships are more important than ever.

I love the level-up challenge inherent in beginning to manage managers. The grinding of the prior level gives way to a set of new challenges, obstacles, and even adversaries. Spend too much time playing the other level’s game, and you’ll be eaten alive by the unique obstacles you’ll encounter on this level.

Three Big Priorities When You’re Promoted to Manage Managers:

1. Help Your Direct Report Manager Win

Acknowledge your new role and work immediately with your direct report manager(s) to clarify your respective roles. My favorite technique involves Angela’s Question—named for a smart project manager who gave her boss (me) a lesson in what it means to lead. Ask your direct report manager(s): At the end of our time working together, when we’re successful, what will you say that I did? And use the ideas generated from this question to refine your respective role charters. Your direct report manager will let you know what they need from you, and of course, the process should involve them defining how they can support your needs.

By whatever method you can, sort out the role differences and needs. Remember to take into account communication needs, priority setting, performance reporting, 911-challenge escalation and everything else the parties need to create a productive working dynamic that recognizes the role differences. You can fine-tune over time, but with this upfront work on the relationship and communication dynamics spelled out, you minimize the toe-stepping that bedevils so many of these relationships.

In all circumstances, you as the manager of managers owns responsibility for the development of your direct reports. If you’re bringing on a new manager, it’s a labor and time-intensive job for observing and coaching. If you’re responsible for an experienced manager, it’s imperative to tune-in to their developmental needs, aspirations, and to establish a respectful, supportive coaching arrangement as early as possible.

2. Now, Focus on Your Working Relationship with Your Boss

I’ve long believed good things happen when you support your boss’s priorities. After all, they selected you to succeed at this level. Now, it’s your turn to help them succeed.

As a manager of managers, you are one step closer to the work strategy, and you must be tuned-in to the goals and objectives and aspirations of your boss to execute your job effectively.

While some bosses are eager to draw their senior managers into this work, you might have to ask to be involved. I encourage you to proactively work with your boss and redefine your communication protocol and create opportunities where you can ask questions, not just report results. Regular one-on-one time should be more than status updating. Take the initiative to ask questions, including:

  • How are we doing as an organization?
  • What are our priorities to support the firm’s strategies?
  • What are you directly accountable for as it relates to outcomes and results?
  • How are we evaluated?
  • How can I better align my priorities/the priorities of my managers to support yours?
  • How can I advocate for your priorities across the organization?
  • How can we work together to develop my manager(s)?

This short-list of significant issues should get the dialog flowing. Continually strive to fine-tune your working relationship and communication activities with your boss. Again, some are easier to work with here than others. However, accountability is squarely on your shoulders to strive to get it right. The boss is never the problem—your inability to work with the boss can be.

3. Meet the Peers

Your peer managers are essential customers and stakeholders in your team’s work. Strive to step beyond your functional boundaries and cultivate robust and productive working arrangements with your peers.

Much of organizational decision-making takes place horizontally, across groups, and you along with your peers wield an incredible amount of power for deciding what gets done, how it gets done and who does it. You want and need a seat at this table!

One manager of managers I coached was a master at identifying gray-zone problems—problems that cross functional boundaries—and galvanizing support to tackle those issues. He was outstanding at making his peers and their team members heroes through these successful initiatives, and consequently, it became desirable to be a part of his efforts. I love this approach and highly recommend you find some way to adopt the practices to your situation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While stepping into the role of managing managers is disorienting, there’s a whole new world of challenges in front of you. Instead of reverting to doing what you know, it’s imperative for you to zoom out a bit and begin to work in the broader environment of organizational priorities. Start on day one to build the groundwork for your success with your direct report manager(s), your peers, and your boss. It’s part of leveling up as a manager of managers.

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