When is someone ready to manage managers?

Camille Fournier
Nov 16, 2018 · 6 min read

When I wrote “The Manager’s Path” I talked about what it means to work at the various levels of leadership, but I didn’t really talk as much about how you actually climb to those levels. For some people, it just happens as a consequence of being in a growing organization, and succeeding at growing with that organization. But how does that work, really? And how can you show that you are ready to take on bigger things when the opportunity comes along?

First, look at the role you are currently playing. If you are still spending most of your time deep in the technical details of the projects, you are probably not really working on the skills needed to manage managers. You need to develop the ability to leverage your attention and time through more people and projects, and that generally requires that you start looking outward (at people, teams, and related projects) and forward (to identifying opportunities, strategies, and potential pitfalls), rather than deeply down into the technical details. Be honest with yourself: Are you ready to spend less time in the technical details? If not, you are probably not going to enjoy managing managers. Is your team set up for you to spend less time in the details? If not, you need to fix that problem by developing new technical leaders, before you are likely to be tapped to manage more people and eventually managers.

Once you’ve started to scale yourself beyond a tech lead who manages a few people, you’re ready to be considered for the next level.

How to go from line manager to managing managers

The promotion path forward generally depends on a few things.

Can you scale your team effectively? If the team is 5 people growing to 20, it’s easy to argue that there is a need to create sub-teams. If you are seen as instrumental to leading the growth, hiring the new people, making sure the new hires are on-boarding successfully, and helping the team scale effectively, it might be you who gets called upon to manage the new team!

However, this only works when you are scaling successfully as a manager. Most of us want to promote from within, but when your team isn’t running effectively, it doesn’t make us want to give you more. This is usually what’s happening when a division grows quickly and the original manager does not get tapped to run the division. There’s a lack of confidence in the original manager to lead the larger team. If those new hires aren’t effectively working, if people are complaining to your manager that they feel unhappy with the work, if your projects aren’t shipping, if you have a lot of quality problems, or even if you just can’t effectively juggle all of the work of managing people and projects, you’re probably seen as unable to succeed at the next level of management.

Would other managers want to work for you? You need to be able to balance people and projects and getting things done, but that’s not all. The second question that arises is: would other managers want to work for you? Managers want a boss who can teach us things. We want coaching on how to be better, without being micromanaged. We want room to make our own decisions and our own mistakes. And we want to work for people who we trust and respect.

Look at the way you are managing your team right now for clues. Your team wants to learn things, and they should be making some of their own technical decisions. To make good decisions, they need to have context for their work (the customer feedback, product goals, and technical challenges). If you’re currently providing them with only a limited view of outstanding tickets or work to be implemented, you should broaden their access to context and give them a voice in the direction their work might take. If you haven’t yet, look to develop new leaders on your team. If you’re tempted to say they’re all “too junior” to be leaders it’s likely that you haven’t developed the coaching skills yet that you will need to manage another manager successfully.

Look at the teams around you, and your relationships with those teams. Developing strong peer relationships is critical to leading an organization effectively. If you are regularly at odds with the managers or the tech leads of other teams, spend some time repairing those relationships. Ideally you can develop enough trust that they will come to you for advice. You might need to start by asking them for advice or doing favors for them without any expectation of immediate return. You want to be seen as a leader beyond your team, and that starts by acting as a collaborative partner.

Does your manager want you reporting to her? The third question, beyond basic scaling and the ability to convince other managers that they might do well working for you, is the question of whether a more senior manager wants you reporting directly to her.

This depends on you, your manager, and the options that your manager has available. If your manager has to decide between someone who needs a ton of coaching and someone who already knows how to do the job, it’s unlikely she’s going to choose the person who needs a lot of coaching to run the team. Especially if she is already stretched thin. In general, if you’re managing managers, your boss wants you to be able to operate independently. She wants someone capable of dealing with most people problems without escalating them, smoothing over conflicts within their team and with peer teams, and who can represent the team well to third parties within the company.

That being said, if you lack the experience but have shown yourself to be open to feedback and coachable, you are much more likely to be chosen than a random outsider. Many people people get tripped up here without realizing it. So many line managers think that they are temporarily embarrassed CTOs, and don’t realize that they are lacking in many critical skills. If you bristle at every bit of corrective feedback, if you have an outsized ego that everyone can see, or even if you simply never actually act on the feedback that you get, you’re not going to be top of the list when the opportunities come about.

But how am I supposed to learn these skills if I don’t have a team to practice on!

Don’t despair. Just because you are only managing a single, smaller team doesn’t mean you can’t develop the skills and show that you can add more to the overall org. Here are some ideas for areas to focus on, in no particular order:

  1. Is your team a well-oiled machine, delivering clean code regularly and partnering well with other teams in the org? If not, perhaps you need to make sure your local house is in great working order, because it’s hard to get promoted if you aren’t seen as effective with your current scope.
  2. Look into how you can help your larger organization. This could be volunteering for organizational tasks such as: helping develop the interview process, running hackweek, organizing open source initiatives, etc. It could mean identifying processes within your organization that are less than ideal, and working to put in place concrete improvements. These will give you practice managing via influence, a valuable skill for most senior managers.
  3. How are your relationships with other managers and tech leads in your organization? Are you friendly and collaborative? Do you sometimes do things for their teams without expecting something in return? Building partner relationships with other teams nearby can help make you a possible candidate for leading those teams when there is an opening for a leadership change. But resist the urge to provide unsolicited advice to your peers! Your well-meaning advice will come across as a signal that you think you could do their job better, and that rarely goes over well.
  4. Are you presenting a professional face to the team? Are your working hours reliable? Do you respond to email in a reasonable timeframe? Are you thoughtful in your communication style? Do you come prepared to meetings or do you always look like you’re about to fall asleep at the table? In other words, is your boss going to worry that you’ll make her look bad? If so, work on that. Otherwise you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

If all else fails, you can certainly try to jumpstart your career by moving to another part of your organization or another company entirely. But my advice, especially if you like the company you’re working for, is to start by making sure you’re not holding yourself back.

Enjoy this post? You might like my book, The Manager’s Path, available on Amazon and Safari Online!

Thanks to Alvaro Videla

Camille Fournier

Written by

Author, “The Manager’s Path.” http://amzn.to/2FvjeHH Distributed systems, dysfunctional programming. camilletalk.com, elidedbranches.com

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