Illustration by Laura Wright

Becoming A Manager Of Managers

Lessons learned on how to shape the next generation of leaders

The move into management is an often discussed topic. We all want to climb the career ladder, yet some dread the day where the only way up is to join management. This is especially true in engineering.

Whether we want to admit or not, hierarchy and management are necessary to run a large company successfully. And while there should be career paths for all kinds of specialisations, it is equally as important to shape the next generation of leaders.

Recently, one of my long-term reports got promoted to an Engineering Management role. This was very exciting for her as well as for me. She worked hard to get there since joining Redbubble. For me, it was the first time to see someone through to that level — I became a manager of another manager. And as the cherry on top, I received one of the best compliments in years:

I couldn’t have done it without you.

This is why I am passionate about personal growth and development (as those who follow me already know) and why I love my current role. I am able to help others find their passion and get them into a role that is just right for them.

After the fuzzy feeling has passed, the compliment also got me thinking: What exactly did I do to help with her transition into management? Are there good practices that might help others?

Becoming A Role Model

Being a good manager means there are lots of different tasks you have to do well. It is necessary to be able to quickly change hats when the situation requires. As a people manager alone, you have to be boss, mentor, counsellor and friend. All at the same time.

Having the ability to change hats is even more crucial when helping someone transition into a new role. In particular, the demands on you as a coach and mentor increase.

You are the role model for your aspiring manager.

Think back when you became a manager. Did you not observe everything your boss did? Did you try to pick up the tricks of the trade from her? This is exactly what your protégé does as well.

You will be very keenly observed and what you do is seen as good practice. You have to be extremely deliberate about coaching to ensure they learn the right thing. For example, one moment you might be acting as a counsellor helping someone emotionally through a tough decision. In the next — as their coach — you have to think through the management lesson you want to share.

This is not as trivial as it may sound. You are not only managing someone, you are also teaching them to become a manager themselves. Hopefully though — as it was for me — you will be able to learn and grow a lot yourself through this experience.

Lead Through Others

As a senior manager this might be obvious, but it is worth repeating here for those that have never managed a manager:

Lead through others, not past or over them.

Unless it is an emergency or your aspiring manager has explicitly asked for help, do not get involved directly. And from personal experience, I can say it is quite a hard rule to stick to the first time around.

Your first instinct is to jump in and fix things up. You most likely have a theory about what is going on. You might have dealt with similar situations in the past. Time is pressing and the business wants results.

Let me repeat it because it is crucial: Do not get involved directly. You have to support your new manager to handle the problem, without spelling out a solution or taking over. This is what coaching is all about. You want to help others acquire a skill you have. And the most impactful way is to guide the other person to the solution, not provide one.

Ramp Up Responsibility

Transitioning into management is hard. This is true for the new manager as well as for the person helping with the transition.

Starting on a small scale makes the transition easier.

Instead of just handing someone all the new responsibilities at once, start with one or two aspects. Then adjust your ramp up according to how things are going. This has two huge advantages:

  • First, it is much easier to adapt to the new role for the up-and-coming manager. They can focus on learning one required skill at a time. The same advantage goes for you as the senior manager: You can concentrate on the mentoring in one particular area.
  • Second is the ability to adjust the role / plan as you go. Especially if a person identifies early in the process that management is not for them. It is much easier to go back one step. However, if everything has been put in place at once, the mental barrier and effort to change is much higher.

Being able to ramp up slowly is a luxury. I had over a year to help my new Engineering Manager take on the full role. You might not have the same luxury of time. However, if you have the choice, I recommend you take your time and start small.

Recap

Finding and shaping the next generation of leaders is crucial to the long-term success of a business. Three lessons to keep in mind when supporting someone with the transition into management are:

  • Being a role model, as well as a mentor and coach
  • Do not get involved directly, but lead through others
  • Start small and ramp up the responsibilities over time