Who is Managing and Leading Your Front-Line Managers?

Every organization requires strong front-line managers and leaders. The job of developing these managers falls to their direct supervisors, leaders who are “managers of managers.”

These managers of managers must select, train, and hold front-line managers accountable. Alas, many managers of managers neglect this fundamental aspect of their job; they do not coach or teach management skills to their first time managers. Rather, they ignore all warning signs and just let their managers “sink or swim.” This poor leadership is dysfunctional as many first-time managers develop shocking leadership skills and styles. Further, it is wasteful as promising employees progress into management, only to flounder without adequate guidance, and then leave with their career in ruins.

Key Skills for Managers of Managers

  1. Select and train front-line managers. This includes choosing the right people to become managers and teaching managerial skills to first time managers. In addition, they need to support and encourage their front line managers while holding them accountable for managerial work and their team’s results.
  2. Manage relationships across the group. This includes deploying resources (money, time, attention, people) across the group of front-line managers. Further, they need to break down barriers between and among the group, simplifying work wherever possible.


Key Challenge for Managers of Managers

The key challenge for managers of managers is to evaluate their front-line managers’ performance without undercutting their authority. They need to know how their managers are really managing. Are their managers getting results while managing and leading in the proper way? Or are they so focused on results that they have adopted a “kiss up but kick down” leadership style? Managers of managers need to:

  1. Observe the availability and approachability of their managers.
  2. Manage by Walking Around (MBWA). Develop relationship with people below the level of their direct reports. Walk around, meet and interact with them. Ask questions such as “what is going right today”, “what is going wrong today?” Ask alignment questions such as “what are the goals of the organization?” and “what are your three priorities?” Listen to what the people have to say and what they don’t say. Note: if no one sincerely praises or compliments the manager (especially a new manager) in your discussion, then you likely have an issue; the employees’ silence speaks volumes. With MBWA, you may coach the employees, but should not solve their problems. Problem solving remains the responsibility of their direct supervisor, not you.
  3. Review the calendar and daily activities of their managers. What do the managers spend time on? Are they focused on their own work or on the work of their team? Do they allocate sufficient time for managerial tasks such as following-up, coaching, supporting, and training?


Warning Signs for Managers of Managers

There are many warning signs that indicate that managers of managers are not doing their jobs well.

  1. Doing too much individual work. They are too much of a doer; they continue to do the activities that made them successful, or they continue to do the tasks that they most enjoyed in their old jobs.
  2. Too much “make it happen.” With a single minded focus on getting the work done, managers of managers will often take over and directly manage a manager’s employees to “get it done.” This undercuts the front line-manager’s authority retarding his or her leadership development.
  3. Poor delegators. They may have difficulty delegating and letting the front-line managers solve their own problems. The front-line managers must be able to give their views and solve their own team’s problems. No development tasks place if the manager of managers is solving every problem or making every decision.
  4. No feedback. They give little or no feedback to their managers. There is no focus on performance management (reviews and periodic assessments).
  5. Failure to build a strong and diverse team of front-line managers. They may leave poor managers in their roles. Or they build a weak team of managers. Or they build a group of managers that are all clones in personality, expertise and leadership style. The goal is to develop a broad and diverse team of outstanding managers.
  6. Bunker mentality with the rest of the larger organization – us vs. them.
  7. Too much ego. As in all leadership roles, there needs to be a value shift. It is no longer about the manager of managers as an individual performer (“I”); it is about the long-term success of the group of managers and team that the manager of managers builds (“We”).

About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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