Managing Managers

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post two issues per month.

Photo by Jordan Heath on Unsplash

Photo by Jordan Heath on Unsplash

The transition from a manager to a director is an oft-overlooked one, even though it comes with its unique set of challenges. It can be even more complex than the jarring transition from individual contribution to people management.

Everything seems bigger; your team is larger, the stakes are higher, and your responsibilities grow. Your work switches from “make sure these people produce good work” to “make sure these people can support their teams”. The difficulty level rises if you manage a mixed group of managers and individual contributors, as your support should look different for the two groups.

On the director level, there is a lot of uncertainty, and expectations are often unclear. Most of the time, the support you’ll get is minimal. “Business as usual” won’t serve you in this new role.

The changes are significant:

“Wait, what is my job now?”

First, you must understand that the type of work you’ll be doing at a director level is quite different from what you used to do as a manager. Running a high-performing team will not be your only job; you must also ensure your team is working towards the correct direction, along with the rest of the company.

If you haven’t yet let go of your contributor responsibilities, this is when you should delegate as much as possible. It’s time to start skipping daily stand-ups and participating in activities like code reviews, design critiques and status update meetings. Delegating tasks is essential; otherwise, you will disempower your direct reports and cause disruptions to your team.

Upskilling yourself and your team

Revisiting your core management skills is imperative, as there’s nowhere to hide now. That includes (but is not limited to) hiring and laying off people, performance management, mentoring, sponsoring, and coaching. Improving your coaching skills will require you to tap into how you felt when you first became a manager. How can you use that experience to coach your direct reports?

Focus on teaching the managers in your team your best project management practices, as they’re essential for their personal growth. Instead of asking highly specific questions like “How did you work with that person to get the project done?” switch to more open-ended questions that don’t lead your team members into a specific way of working, like “How’s that project going?”

Communicating on multiple levels

As a director, you must make sure you know (and care about) the teams of the people you manage. Learn their names and maintain a good idea of each group’s dynamic. While keeping an open communication line with your skip levels is essential, they should not come to you with information not openly known or shared with their managers first. Nip that behaviour in the bud, or risk creating distrust and resentment between your team members.

As a leader, you’re the one that decides what kind of behaviour is acceptable. Set the example by treating your direct reports as you would like them to treat their team members.

Things can get lonely when you become a director. People tend to get isolated to deal with the additional weight of decision-making. Focus on improving your storytelling skills to convey your message and externalize your inner monologue. Make sure to communicate your thoughts regularly, not just in 1:1s but also in team meetings, internal communication, and all-hands meetings.

A new crop of meetings

I wish I could tell you that you will attend fewer meetings as a director, but I would blatantly lie to you. However, there are ways for you to be proactive and protect your time against the endless onslaught of requests.

First, you should revisit your 1:1s cadence to ensure they still provide value, either by making them more or less frequent depending on the team’s specific needs. Additionally, scheduling skip-level meetings at least once per quarter is crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page and collect feedback from your indirect reports.

Another type of meeting you might want to add to your roster is a staff meeting with all your direct reports. That will be one of your most valuable tools to ensure that ideas are shared and that any issues can be discussed openly and honestly.

As always, you will need to employ your strong time management skills and learn to say no to requests that other team members can easily fulfil. Focus on providing your unique perspective during meetings, don’t just attend for the sake of attendance.

What does success look like?

Your manager-to-director transition is an excellent opportunity to revisit your metrics and success criteria. Until now, your team acted as a proxy for your productivity, but now more than ever, you have to consider your first team. Your first team is not the people you manage directly. It is the stakeholders of your work.

Driving change within the team and aligning it with the company vision, as well as connecting your team’s work to the business is crucial. Revisit metrics and success criteria, but also ask for feedback from your stakeholders, and not just once, right before your annual performance review. Taking the time to ask for feedback and reflecting on it will help ensure that the team is meeting the goals set out for it and that those goals align with the company vision.

Getting support

Any job transition needs support, but you’ll quickly find that your manager’s help will be non-existent when they’re a VP or a C-level executive. It can often feel like you oscillate between two states; being left alone when things are going well and being invited to an explosion of meetings when things are not.

As a director, you have to manage yourself and locate the support you need, so this is the perfect time to take advantage of that training budget perk. Find a coach, approach other leaders in the company and ask them for mentorship, and connect with people outside the organization to discuss insights. That might feel exceptionally awkward because you’ll have to be vulnerable to multiple people you’ll have to trust with your insecurities. However, to be a kickass director, you’ll have to empower yourself to take charge and seek the support you need to succeed.

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