A manager’s manager


Radio news Are you a new group manager? Many folks become group managers in the late fall. If you’ve never managed managers before, it can be a disorienting experience. You’d think it wouldn’t be that much different than being a lead. Wrong. It’s a dramatic departure.

When you’re a lead, your group manager is there to cover for you. She’s in the same group as you, vets and approves your decisions, and basically acts as your backstop. When you’re a group manager, no one covers for you, not even your director. Sure, your director can help you with direction and big decisions, but you’re expected to run your group. The buck stops with you.

When you’re a lead, you direct the folks who do the work themselves, or you do it yourself. You’re on every code review and you hear about every detail. The time between decisions and results is measured in days (maybe weeks). When you’re a group manager, you tell folks to tell folks to do the work. There’s too much happening to track every check-in and every detail (if not, you’re managing sloths). The time between decisions and results is measured in weeks (maybe months).

So, as a group manager, you’re not doing the work anymore (the thing you were good at), you don’t have anyone covering for you, and you can’t tell if your decisions were damaging for weeks or months. Yet you have full responsibility for your entire group and its results. It’s downright discombobulating. How do you survive and flourish through this transition? Funny you should ask.

Back to basics

I’ve written over 150 columns so far to help group managers better guide and grow their teams and themselves. There’s much to cover, but for new group managers there are a few new behaviors to master.

  • Set strategic direction, along with goals, priorities, and limits.
  • Let your staff members do their jobs.
  • Unblock what’s important and urgent.
  • Grow the talent of your staff.
  • Keep your director and nerves in check.

Let’s calm our nerves, and take these one at a time.

Eyes on the prize

In Vision quest, I describe the importance of having a vision for your organization. For your group to get anywhere, members need to know where they are going. When taking over, one of your first steps is to define your vision (the future when your group is successful) and your mission (the role your group plays in creating that future). These provide the goals for your staff and an all-important picture of where you’re headed together.

Unfortunately, a vision, mission, and their associated goals aren’t enough. There will be choices and tradeoffs. You need to decide on priorities, and priorities aren’t static. They are a combination of importance and urgency. Share clear priorities with your group, and regularly update those priorities as time passes and situations change.

Once you have goals and priorities, there’s one last thing your group needs to achieve its mission and realize its vision—you need to set limits (nicely called “expectations”). Limits provide your staffers safe boundaries to work within that ensure their success. They typically include a quality bar; “done” rules; live-site management procedures; an approach to security, privacy, accessibility, world readiness, and other nonfunctional requirements; and policies regarding how to engage with customers, partners, and coworkers. Limits (“expectations”) define your principles and values. They determine what kind of group yours will be.

Eric Aside

Consistency and integrity are so important in bringing your goals, priorities, and limits to life. Read more about the implications of inconsistency in Spontaneous combustion of rancid management.

Let me do my job

In Never been manager, I caution about the dangers of overfunctioning—doing other people’s work. Overfunctioning is an even more dangerous trap for group managers.

I love to write code, and I’m good at reviewing other people’s code. I’m also good at writing and reviewing email and documents. But I manage five teams and work on a slew of projects. I don’t have the time to write code, review everyone else’s code, nor write or review all the email and documents my group produces.

Even if I had the time, doing all that writing and reviewing would impede my staff from developing those skills. The same can be said for negotiating across teams, triaging bugs, planning, escalating, and just about everything else my leads and staff need to do. Overfunctioning impedes development, hides weaknesses, delays issue resolution, and creates bottlenecks.

Naturally, I still need to handle escalations, plan, triage, negotiate, review, and write. However, I only do so when the task clearly or urgently falls on me or when it provides an important opportunity to coach my staff on how to resolve issues effectively. Even in those cases, I may invite staff members to do the work with me, as a growth opportunity for them.

Eric Aside

Am I lazy? If you’re asking if I create high-functioning teams, then yes, I’m lazy.

I'm stuck in this pit

Even when you establish a compelling vision and mission, define clear goals, priorities, and limits, and allow your staff members to do their jobs, things still go wrong. Folks get blocked by dependencies, outages, politics, or a host of other issues. The escalations come to you.

In Escalation acceleration, I reveal how to handle live-site escalations smoothly and quickly. For other escalation situations, you first need to understand the actual priority (as opposed to the “hair-on-fire” priority indicated by the request). The actual priority will be a combination of importance and urgency.

If the issue is not that important or not that urgent, be supportive and confident in your staff’s ability to resolve the problem: “Wow, that’s rough/unfair/ridiculous. Sounds like you’re engaging the right people. You might want to also contact [other people]. I’m sure you’ll be able to work things out. Let me know if you need further assistance.”

If the issue is both important and urgent, you’ll need to engage swiftly with authority and determination. The importance and urgency will assist you, as will your staff’s prior attempts. Focus on the customer and business impact—those are always the most compelling arguments. Use the strong relationships you’ve built. Be understanding, yet forthright. If you’re too busy, re-read the overfunctioning section above.

Eric Aside

For more on cross-team negotiation, read “My way or the highway” (chapter 8), You can depend on me, and Winning among friends.

The orchards will be in blossom

If you avoid overfunctioning, and provide your group with clear goals, priorities, and limits, you’ll have time available between escalations. How do you best use that time? By enhancing your partner relationships and staff capabilities.

You should always be caring for your network (see “Get yourself connected,” chapter 7). Growing the capability of your group is just as vital (arguably, far more). There are several ways to boost your team’s talent:

  • Purge poisonous people. Getting rid of net-negative staff is always tops on my list. These folks can be extremely bright and productive, but their bad behaviors put others down, scare away customers, bottleneck progress, and sabotage morale. Once these poisonous people are purged, everyone is amazed at how the group not only rebounds, but thrives far beyond its previous limits. (“The toughest job” in chapter 9 has details.)
  • Recruit relentlessly. Always be fully staffed. This is urgent and important. Nothing happens without great people. Read more in “Out of the loop” (chapter 9), Permissible poaching, and Hire's remorse.
  • Secure safety. Creating a safe place for staff to take risks, make mistakes, learn, and grow is essential to a high-performing group (see Is it safe?).
  • Mentor for mastery. Use one-on-ones, skip-level one-on-ones, staff meetings, and opportune moments to constantly mentor your group members. Help them master their craft, take on new challenges, deal with difficult situations, and understand how you think and approach issues. (This also helps you stay in touch with your product and its construction.) Like the perfect home or the perfect marriage, you don’t find perfect employees—you develop them. (Read plenty more in One to one and many to many, I hardly recognize you, and Go with the flow.)

Eric Aside

Often the best mentor for a staff member is outside your group. Use your network to find the right fit.

Don’t panic

Things are looking good now. You’ve got your staff oriented, unblocked, growing, and getting things done. However, you can still get riled by three things: overload, uncertainty, and your management.

To calm your management, you need to “manage up.” That means being an intelligent filter between your management and your staff. You already know your people, so you know how to frame information from management in a way that your staff finds helpful and clear. You need to do the same for information flowing up.

Get to know your manager and skip manager. Understand what they care about, including key projects, interests, issues, and people. Learn how they like to have information presented to them (data, anecdotes, demos, documents), and then use that preferred method to share the portion of your group’s status that your managers care about. Oh, and never let your managers be surprised—if they’re going to find out, ensure they find out from you first.

To avoid being overloaded, first avoid overfunctioning and unnecessary meetings. (You can determine which meetings are unnecessary by occasionally skipping them.) Next, you need to tame your inbox. My column Your World. Easier has tips, as does “Time enough” (chapter 8).

As for uncertainty, just chill. No one responds well to a panicked manager, and impetuous decisions are like lighter fluid to a fire. When you chill, you’ll be surprised at how many issues get resolved when you let them sit for a few hours, how many unassigned tasks and roles get taken once you let people know they are available, how many new challenges and opportunities arise as you finish big projects, and how flexible people can be when they know they’ll be supported. It’s tempting to overreact to uncertainty and rush for clarity, but don’t—just chill. Let people surprise you with how resourceful they can be.

Eric Aside

For help presenting to upper management, read The VP-geebees.

Not in Kansas anymore

Managing managers can be disorienting. You might miss doing “real” work. However, if you enjoy growing the people around you and helping them achieve big goals, being a group manager can be highly rewarding.

You want to define a vision and mission for your group, along with the goals, priorities, and limits (“expectations”) that help your staff achieve them. You want to avoid overfunctioning and let your people master their jobs. You want to keep your group members unblocked and constantly help them enhance their skills. And finally, you want to manage your management, and your own nerves, as you navigate toward success.

If you’re ever confused or overwhelmed by your new role, remember what matters most for managers: creating a healthy work environment and caring about your people. If you get those right, everything else comes more easily.

I love being a group manager, and I hope you will too. If you don’t, always know that you can return to being a lead or individual contributor—good things arise from following your passion. What matters is constantly growing, improving, and delivering magic to our customers.

Eric Aside

Interested in advancing beyond group manager? Read Making the big time.

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