Leading Leaders Can be Harder Than it Looks

At some point in the not-to-distant future, Renee and I will likely have the honor of becoming grandparents. (Children heading to the altar, after all, anticipates a certain inevitability!) Thinking about it brings up some interesting questions: What kind of grandparents will we be? Are we supposed to have any role in discipline—in managing our grandchild’s development?  And how will we manage the delicate balancing act of being both loving and firm, yet still make sure that we don’t interfere with role of the child’s parents? After all, don’t we know best? Haven’t we’ve had a lot of practice raising our own kids?

Put another way, the question is this: How do we learn to let others take over for things we’ve done ourselves for so many years?

In our coaching and consulting we run across all types of changing situations—everything from departmental or organizational restructurings, to acquisitions, to shifts in senior leadership. One of the situations that has some very unique and important challenges, however, is the situation in which someone is managing managers for the first time.

Managing direct reports can be difficult (though nearly always rewarding!), but someone with that responsibility is directly involved in nearly every facet of subordinate work. At the other end of the spectrum, members of senior leadership teams predominately immerse themselves in strategy, finance, and higher-level operations, often having very little “touch” with the kind of day-to-day working activities that make up the majority of most employees’ work. The second tier manager (often carrying the title of Senior Manager or Director), however, exists in a strange amalgamation of the two. On the one hand accountability for a group’s or department’s success is very clearly part of the job; yet on the other hand, a Senior Manager or Director is expected to see things from a higher, more holistic view, to take into account not only the workaday tasks, but the bigger picture.

Invariably what we find in such situations is an individual challenged to take a step back and to let his or her direct reports manage their employees as they see fit, while still insuring that those people two tiers below (i.e., “skip-level” reports) still feel part of the larger mission. They must fight the urge to micromanage but still recognize that they have a responsibility to lead and provide direction while maintaining employee engagement, morale, and productivity.

So how is a second-level manager supposed to work with the rest of the group? In our estimation there are three key points to remember:

  1. The second-level manager should focus on his or her direct reports, and on the development of skills that make those people better managers of their own staff members.
  2. The second-level manager should craft clear and measurable goals for his or her direct reports, insuring that they are outcome-based rather than task-based, and then review the goals of others to make sure they are aligned with the group’s overall responsibilities.
  3. The second-level manager should strive to have strong relationships with everyone at skip-level, but should always refer important conversations back to an individual’s direct manager. In other words, second-level managers should never undercut the authority of the managers working for them.

In much the same way that a grandparent needs to be there for the grandkids without undercutting the authority of the child’s parents, so, too, must a second-tier manager learn the skills necessary to empower their own direct reports to manage, while still maintaining a strong sense of mission and group energy. With the proper guidance, coaching, and development, a person’s first experience as a second-level manager can be the kind of success that promises further management growth in the coming years.

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