Managing managers

How do you successfully lead the folks who lead their own teams? Here are eight key steps to consider.

For all of the corporate intrigue around the particular qualities that make for an effective manager, two things are certain: first, that the role — particularly at the senior level — is crucial to a company’s success, and second, that every business is chomping at the bit to uncover the recipe. A 2015 Gallup poll found that at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement across business units is accounted for by bosses. What’s more is that businesses fail to choose the right candidate for managerial roles a staggering 82% of the time, and a meagre one in 10 people possess the ideal alchemy of talents to lead their teams.

The precise combination of strengths that separates a marvellous manager from a mediocre one remains a mystery, but the ever-curious whizzes at Google attempted to find out. In 2009, they kicked off Project Oxygen, a multiyear deep-dive into the company’s performance reviews, surveys and even its internal complaint logs aimed at defining which qualities make for an amazing manager. The result? “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers,” a list that includes lots of familiar buzzwords, such as “results-oriented” and the oblique “good communicator.”

Still, it’s one thing to support your subordinates: what’s infinitely more complicated is defining how to effectively manage the managers who have teams and working styles of their own.

This conundrum is familiar to Stacey Nagle, a partner in Deloitte’s assurance and advisory practice who manages a team of five senior accountants who have direct reports. “I have challenges on two ends of the spectrum,” says Nagle. “One is that there are managers who are really good, but they’re too relaxed — they’re high-performing but their style is very laid-back. I’ve also had people who are just not good managers because they weren’t overly productive employees or they may not have had good role models. In this case you know you need to be more involved or they’re going to destroy the experience for people working underneath them.”

Nagle adds that, when it comes to delivering less-than-stellar feedback, she wishes she was more versed in conflict resolution. But managing managers is a tricky business in general. “The ideal skill set is not always obvious to people who have direct reports who are also managing others,” says John Oesch, an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. “What kinds of communication skills are they going to need? How do they relate to their managers?” Here are tips from Oesch and Cara Maurer, assistant professor of strategic management and organizational behaviour at Ivey Business School in London, Ont., for managing managers with ease.

Be a coach, not a drill sergeant

To avoid that most egregious of managerial sins — gasp, micromanaging — give your junior managers advice when necessary, but leave room for trial and error. “It would be fairly easy to say, especially in the beginning, ‘Let me show you how to do that’ or ‘Let me talk to your direct subordinate myself,’ ” says Maurer. Instead, she recommends asking probing questions such as, ‘Tell me more how you’ve been handling this management task,’ and allowing for growth “rather than getting right in the trenches and being all over them about every decision or step taken.” For his part, Oesch has a few tricks too: allow managers to work on their own, observe them from a distance and give them little projects that include criteria for success.

Be a model

“Often, implicit rules about the way a business’s culture works are shown and not told,” says Oesch, who adds that it’s crucial to model the managerial style you wish to see in the workplace. “These people are watching you like hawks.” Maurer underscores the importance of keeping your mentorship as natural as possible. “You’re just doing, showing, not using big words and saying, ‘This is how it ought to be done,’” she says. Leave the decision on what techniques to use up to them.

Respect their management style

“There’s data that suggests many people manage in their own image,” says Oesch, “but that’s not something someone who studies organizational behaviour would ever recommend.” He says it’s worth remembering that junior managers bring their own strengths to the job, which is why they’ve been promoted. Rather than running them through your own iteration of Management 101, Oesch recommends that senior managers adopt an approach that fosters their direct reports’ skills and shores up their weaknesses. “Those people offer good stuff — why would you want to turn them into you?”

Know their teams — but ask first

Provided you clear any information-gathering with your subordinates in advance (no ambushes!), surveying their teams can be a great way to gain a more comprehensive understanding of your managers’ performance. “Show your support for them as well,” says Maurer. “It’s a way to say, ‘I’m behind him or her.’ Praising in front of all direct reports when things go well is a very smart idea,” one that will likely foster a sense of positivity and togetherness among staff members. However, criticisms, Maurer says, should be made behind closed doors.

Beware of trickle-down stress

“Once you’re in a leadership role, emotions are highly contagious. And negative emotions are hugely detrimental to a company,” says Maurer, who advises stepping back when stress builds, thereby minimizing the risk that your junior managers — and, by extension, their reports — will catch wind of your anxiety. Focusing on the positive might also cut the tension: “Say, ‘Let’s focus on what went well today. That one document looked really good and the client was happy.’”

Embrace authenticity

Forget what you’ve learned about keeping emotions out of the office — showing your true self can be a transformative managerial technique, says Maurer. “There’s really something to be said for showing that personal side — not hiding behind the corporate front of jargon.” If your past experiences are relevant, by all means, share them in a one-on-one meeting — it will encourage your subordinates to relate to you and others on a more human level. “Hopefully that will create a sense of trust, and teams can work more effectively together when they establish that from the get-go.”

Keep criticism constructive

“I have three words for you,” says Oesch. “Describe desired behaviours. It’s amazing how we expect people to figure out how to do things.” Be crystal clear about your expectations for junior managers, offer rewards when they perform appropriately and withhold them when they don’t. Again, Maurer extols the virtues of an understanding approach: “How do you react when they make a mistake? Say, ‘I’m glad you took a risk; let’s look at your process,’ or try, ‘This was a good learning experience. Hopefully next time, you will see different results.’”

Think long term

A manager’s personal progress is a lot harder to track than, say, revenue or concrete data points. Oesch recommends sitting down with each manager to brainstorm, negotiate and agree upon behavioural goals, quantifying where possible, then filling in any blanks with feedback from their direct reports. Maurer adds, “Tell them to spend time thinking about what’s important to them in terms of professional development and explain how that overlaps with your company’s strategy.” And remember to be patient: “So many things in business tend to have long time horizons. Especially people.”