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The Third Gate in the Pipeline: Managing Managers

Taking on a team of first line managers is a challenging transition in the leadership pipeline – although, according to Charan, Drotter and Noel, it doesn’t get a lot of attention. If you’ve been making the natural progression from managing Self to managing Others to managing Managers, then you’ve been making quite a few adjustments to the way you think about time, values and the skills you need. This post talks about the latest in the series: Managing Managers.

The Leadership Pipeline: How to build a Leadership Powered Company describes all leadership transitions in terms of three areas of focus: time management, skills required and work values. Each step through the leadership pipeline introduces new ways of thinking for each of these focus areas.

There are some things that both the organization and the individual should be thinking about:

  • How is the new manager of managers going to be spending their time that is different from the way they spent their time as a first line manager?
  • What new skills does this manager of managers need to pick up that are above and beyond what they needed when they were a first line manager?
  • What new work values does this manager of managers need that are different from the work values of a first line manager?
  • How are we monitoring progress to ensure that:
  • a. the manager of managers has mastered the time management, skills required, and work values from their previous role managing Others,
  • b. how are we monitoring the time management, skills required, and work values of the new position, and
  • c. what’s the program available to help these managers make the transition smoothly?

When this transition happened for me, I had been doing what my management thought was a good job managing my staff. Morale was pretty good, the job was getting done, and I was learning to have fun with it.

I remember very clearly the event that sort of slapped me into Manager-of-Managers reality. I was responsible for 11 task/project managers who covered a wide range of business areas. Geographically, my operations were spread out from Kansas to Puerto Rico. Though I did fly from state to state, I spent most of my time on site at Bethesda Naval Hospital (now known as Walter Reed National Medical Center).

It was about 4PM. My senior technical people had already gone home for the day and could not be reached by phone. The Executive Officer (second in command) came down to our office spaces looking for some help. He was having trouble with his email and needed to get something out the door ASAP.

No problem, I thought…How hard can this be?

No problem, I thought. I ran a help desk. I used to manage networks. I built servers from scratch, pulled cable, wrote a few programs. How hard can this be?

17 hours later, my Exchange administrator arrived to find me, red eyed and dizzy from lack of sleep, flanked by two of my loyal technical staff – equally tired – and hunched over the keyboard. The problem was still a problem – only by that time, I’m sure I had made it worse.

On that day, I left the server room, turned to my Deputy and told him that I am never to go in that room again. I remembered a time when my boss’s boss came and “helped” me with a technical problem – only to mess it up even more than it was to start with. I had made the transition to pure management.

I eventually moved my office to a “pure management” location in Silver Spring. The layers between me and the “front line” seemed to multiply quickly. My focus changed. I could no longer afford to be directly involved in staff problems. I had to learn to equip and empower my managers to handle problems themselves. I learned how to be a coach.

Coaching was probably the number one focus for me. My value to the organization was no longer judged by what I did, but by how well my first-line managers did what they did. Our victories and failures were based on how well my on-site management teams could perform. Staying in touch with them and giving them what they needed to be successful was a full time focus – and challenge in a geographically distributed environment.

On occasion, an employee would “jump the chain of command,” make an “end run” around their manager and try to get to me. My judgement and diplomacy skills were exercised more frequently. I learned how to empower my managers and not make employees feel “brushed off.”

Delegation was something that has to be learned when we learn to manage Others, but delegation takes on new meaning in the context of managing managers. I began to understand a new form of delegation I call “strategic delegation.” The act of delegating itself wasn’t something I had to think about much, but using delegation as a tool to test and grow my management team was new. I had to think carefully about the skills and experience of each of my managers. I chose to delegate certain projects to certain members in order to test them, help them grow, or to give them new opportunities to be successful.

I had to think about my manager’s maturity as well as my own. Succession planning is something we are always doing in management. We ask ourselves: Who is best qualified to step up into my position when I move on? Answering this question at this level means also being sure we can be objective and avoid promoting clones just because they are most like us. Managing Managers will expose us to different management styles. While our style may work well for us, someone else has a style that works great for them. Neither are wrong. Just different.

For other posts in this series, see:

Photo source: Sales Lead Management Association

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This is a very difficult problem in government, especially when faced with a management team that is very “old school” when you are in a role of innovation or thought leadership such as web, social media or OpenGov. I have yet to find a workable solution when their primary goal is to disempower or undermine your efforts that doesn’t involve Unions or other adminstrative complaint processes.

I think in this case, the best approach is to leave the organization as there are an increasing number of forward thinking managers in government.

However, next-gen managers are still few and far between. Most of the social media outreach efforts are considered secondary or peripheral to the main mission of the organization, and in some cases, considered “fluff” or time wasted.

David Dejewski

Megan – which problem in government are you referring to, and which level of management do you think the problem is affecting?


The role of the “influence manager”, and how to deal with hostility in the workplace is the problem. If the meanagement team in your own organization is not supportive of your work, it is next to impossible to effect change, even if other organizations in the Agency are more forward thinking.