You’re officially in senior management. Congratulations. Now what?
Maybe you were just promoted to Director, VP, or the C-Suite. Maybe you just landed in a new company, and are having a hard time gaining the trust of the existing managers. Do you sense infighting or bad blood? This post is for you.
Managers are a tough lot. By definition, management is a mix of senior leadership roles, which means anyone lucky enough to be in a management position has had plenty of time to develop habits, both good and bad. In addition, many managers have been at one company for an extended length of time. I, personally, have managed managers with 20+ years more seniority at the company than I had.
Understandably, bad blood can form or be intrinsic to your hire or promotion. Managers can feel like you don’t have their best interests at heart. They might feel that you don’t even know what their best interests are or what the company should be doing. Many managers have been fighting uphill battles against senior management for years, or decades, and are bitter about their role.
These tips are here to help you know how to handle these difficult, and often brilliant, members of your team.
Are you ready? Here we go.
As a senior management figure, your primary role is as a conduit. Information goes down, information comes up. Surface the problems from your teams, and drive visibility for important issues within your department. You are your teams’ mascot, there to go to bat for them, to ensure that your direct reports and their teams are equipped with the best tools for their jobs, and the most current knowledge of the company to be effective in their roles.
Likewise, you are the representation of The Company to your direct reports and their teams, and so you must also stay aligned with senior management, and communicate The Company’s goals, KPIs, and future effectively downstream. Senior management must be a united front, or you fracture the trust that your teams have with the company itself. That means your communication must be aligned with other members of senior leadership. Which brings me to…
Talk to your managers
Now, this might seem like an obvious one. Of course you talk to them, you work with them all the time! But have you asked them for their opinions? Listened to what they have to say? Have you checked in with them on a personal level, and taken the time to really understand their frustrations?
Often, when you’re struggling to gain the trust of an employee, it’s because they think you’re just using them, or seeking out advancement at the cost of the greater good or what’s good for them and theirs. Most managers, good ones at least, want to protect their team. If a company has had a history of rotating upper management, they might not want to spend the time to get to know the new guy. It’s your job to let them know that you’re there for them, there for the company, and don’t intend to go anywhere.
Act on what you discover
Did you learn something new in your one-on-one discussions with your direct reports? Maybe a manager hates when their team is called into meetings without her knowledge. Give her a courtesy email first, or a call saying “Hey, I need to pull some of your people into meeting X because of this project. Just wanted to give you a heads up, as I know how important this is to you, after our meeting the other day.”
Making an effort to show that you’re not just asking, but really listening, is a necessary step on the path towards earning trust.
Give credit where credit is due
The same general principles for management practices apply to managers under you as non-management team members. The old adage of “praise publicly, criticize privately” is just as meaningful in senior management positions. No person, management or not, likes when someone above them takes credit for their work.
On the opposite end, if you are modest and give credit, perhaps even slightly effusive credit, to your direct reports in view of the C-suite, your company’s board, or even just that manager’s employees, each act will establish your reputation as a fair and respectful leader.
Make changes when necessary
Organizations have a certain amount of inertia and entropy within them. Leadership starts at the top, and if you see a manager not embodying principles of strong leadership, the first step should be education. Talk to the manager, help them lead, offer training, work through scenarios with them. If you see them consistently undermining their employees, or erecting walls against other teams to better establish and grow a fiefdom, that problem will spread.
Sometimes, the best thing to do in that circumstance is let the manager go. A bitter, angry or ineffective manager doesn’t just hurt himself, he hurts each member of his team. He also hurts the larger organization. Walls, once built, become harder to deconstruct. Employees, once unhappy or feeling unrecognized, become retention risks and productivity drains. The saying “People quit their managers, not their jobs” is key to keep in mind here. It’s worse to lose key members of a team than it is to replace an ineffective or harmful manager.
In general, you can view managers as amplifiers of their teams’ potentials. That goes for you too, by the way, as an amplifier of amplifiers. A bad manager can stifle their team, and ensure that nothing but mediocre work is ever produced, whether through bad hires, driving away good employees, or miscommunication. A good manager can find the diamonds in the rough that exist in all organizations, bring them to the forefront, let them shine as they should, and bring more top performers to your shared team.
Don’t fire without reason
Well, that puts a damper on the prior point, right? Keep an eye on your teams and the management team that you’re building as your direct reports. Are they gelling together well? Communication is happening effectively, efficiently, and without your necessary input? You’ve removed or improved any and all poison apples? Perfect. There’s the famous GE mantra of firing the bottom 10% of your workforce every year, used in varying forms known collectively as stack ranking, more notably at Microsoft.
The problem with stack ranking is this: if you have an excellent team, with each member contributing uniquely and fully, removing 10% of that team is likely to result in a gap of talent, a gap of knowledge, and a culture of fear. It can be a useful tool for an initial organizational sweep, if you’re seeing systemic problems, but most of stack ranking’s benefit can be had through just… talking. Talking to your managers and your teams. When you have a culture of trust, transparency, and respect, problem employees can surface and be dealt with individually, as they should be, as each individual is a unique circumstance, and worthy of individual consideration.
Your job, as manager of managers, is to resolve the issues that come up within your management team, keep your managers pointed in the correct direction for the company, and communicate effectively both up and down. Your job is not to do your managers’ jobs. Each manager should be an expert in their domain. That means they probably know more than you do within their sphere, and respect for that knowledge goes a long way.
As C-levels or senior managers, when things are running smoothly, we mostly need to stay out of the way of the excellent teamwork going on while keeping an eye open for problems before they germinate. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and you should be busy enough stopping problems before they start. You don’t need to be taking on the load of your direct reports. That’s what they’re there for.
Learn from your mistakes
We all make mistakes. We hire the wrong people. We fire the wrong people. We say the wrong thing. We get misinterpreted. We champion a project that turns out to be a dud. We campaign for management to promote an employee or provide thousands of dollars in training only to have that employee leave immediately upon gaining the credentials (this has happened to me. It has not stopped me advocating for empowering employees with effective training).
It’s OK. Learn from your mistakes. What did you miss in the hiring process? What was it that you didn’t see when you were firing the person that turned out to be integral? Was there a reason that your employee misinterpreted what you said? Do you have a history of saying something that aligns more with their interpretation? We can’t prevent all mistakes. We’re only human, after all. What we can do is make sure we never make exactly the same mistake, in exactly the same way, again.
Let’s sum it up
In summary, management’s job is to keep team members rowing together, rowing effectively, and rowing harmoniously. Your role, as the manager of managers, is to help your managers do their job, and communicate effectively downwards and upwards, ensuring the executive team knows what they need to, and so do your teams, all the way down to individual contributors in all their roles. If you can pull that off, and keep open, honest, transparent communication flowing within your department and outside, be proud.
You’re doing great. Keep up the good work. Keep learning.