6 min read

Managing Managers: How to Develop Great Leaders

January 18, 2022

Managing Managers

Research repeatedly shows that one of the biggest indicators of an organization’s success is the success of its managers. 

After all, high-performing companies often have one thing in common: high-performing teams led by an army of exceptional managers. Managers that are able to effectively support their team members, leverage their strengths, develop their skills, and ultimately guide them to success.

But for a manager to do this well, they must be developed and supported themselves. In other words, the managers need to be managed themselves. More specifically, they need to be coached to become leaders.

In this article, we'll outline five ways you can help them do just that. We'll also discuss what makes a great manager, provide examples of bad management behaviors, and provide guidance on how you can best equip your team leads to become exceptional people managers.

Managing Managers

The importance of a good manager

People leave managers, not companies, so the saying goes. In fact, ineffective managers are the number one cause of employee dissatisfaction, and a poll by Gallup found that as many as 50% of US workers cited their manager as being the number one reason for quitting their job.

The reality is, many employees only see the organization they work for through their immediate line manager, which means that when a manager isn't great, it not only contributes to a poor manager-employee relationship, but it can also create an atmosphere of anxiety and distrust.

Which can quickly spread to every corner of an organization.

The problem is, many ineffective managers are completely unaware of the impact their behavior has on their direct reports, the team as a whole, and the wider organization.

But what does bad management look like?

Bad management behaviors

  • Micromanagement
  • Putting profit over employee welfare
  • Not celebrating the wins
  • Not giving employees a break
  • Controlling employees
  • Ignoring feedback, suggestions and input from team members
  • Not advocating for or supporting employees
  • Taking credit for employee work

A guide to managing managers

If your managers are new to the role, or if they’ve not managed before, don’t leave them floundering in the dark. There’s a big jump between being an individual contributor and a people manager.

The most effective managers are the people who work with their teams, who collaborate with employees, and involve them in decision making that impacts them. They recognize employees and impart praise accordingly.

They support their employees and help them get ahead in their careers. They also inspire their direct reports to follow them by being competent, honest, and reliable. 

The question is: how can you cultivate managers like this in your organization? 

In short, by following these six steps:

1. Identify the behaviors you want managers to adopt

Rather than assume managers will behave in a way you want them to, formally identify and define what behavioral norms you want to see. Specifically, the managerial behaviors that will have a positive impact on the team. 

Determining ideal behaviors can provide control and security for all parties. It can have a positive influence on building trust, accountability, and responsibility. Plus, having documented behaviors makes it easier to flag behavior that is outside of these norms, and find out why it’s happening.  

If you aren’t sure what the specific behaviors you want your managers to display are, identify which managers within your organization are leading your highest performing teams.

Take time to sit down with these managers and ask them to share how they got to where they are.

Use this information to identify the behaviors that make a great work environment, and more importantly, the behaviors that make them great managers.

When you’re creating your list, make sure the behaviors are tangible and targeted to your organization. It’s important to remember that behaviors that aren’t specific are really hard to put into practice. Just don’t confuse behavior with organizational norms or values.

While the two should be aligned, behaviors are how the norms and values are brought to life. 

2. Publicly praise, privately critique

Give managers the opportunity to shine in front of their direct reports: ask them for advice, praise them publicly, show that you value them as people and as leaders.

This demonstrates to others what you deem desirable behaviors to be, and is therefore a great teaching tool, particularly if you're thinking about developing the next generation of leaders.

Just make sure that when you have criticism to offer, that you do it privately. Better still, rather than criticise, create a culture of providing constructive feedback. After all, if you publicly shame an employee in front of their peers, it can lead to resentment and damage morale, not just for them, but for their team as well. 

Take a look at these feedback models for inspiration on how best to deliver feedback.

But that’s not to say that publicly highlighting undesirable behavior is verboten. As Roger Schwarz wrote in Harvard Business Review, it can be a great team learning moment - i.e. “the situation could have been avoided had a team member done XYZ”.

3. Offer mentoring

Social learning is how the human race has evolved - we didn’t get to where we are today by staying in our lanes. We have learned everything that is vital through relationships, through sharing knowledge, and observing those around us. 

And nowhere is this more applicable than in the workplace.

If you want to improve the competence of your managers, have them learn from mentors

Monkey see, monkey do, so the saying goes. A great way for managers to become better managers is to have individual attention from their line manager. Training can only get managers so far, having someone actually show them how to put their skills into practice is a really beneficial way of helping them build managerial competence.

Offer managers mentoring with someone who has trodden their path before them, who can offer them tools, guidance, support and feedback about what worked well for them, and what didn’t. Maybe that person is you, maybe it’s someone who’s just moved out of the role. 

When done well, mentorship can be life changing. No matter where the manager is in their career, it’s never too late to get a mentor. Mentoring is one of the best ways to develop any missing skills or strengthen weak areas.

4. Don't be hands off

While you don’t want to be seen as micromanaging, what you do want to do is see managers in action, observe them doing their real work, and see where they need improvement. 

Get to know their team—not in an undermining the manager’s authority sort of way, but so you know who their direct reports are, so that you can give the manager better, more targeted feedback and leadership coaching. 

Just don’t put yourself in a position where the manager’s direct reports are telling you things they aren’t telling the manager. Make sure everyone is clear of the reporting chain and that your intentions are to understand and improve the whole team and help the manager succeed in their role.  

If your organization offers formal training for new managers, or access to executive education programs, make sure you enrolled managers onto these.

5. Seek feedback from your managers

One-to-ones shouldn't just be limited to managers and their team members. Managers themselves should also be having one-to-ones with whoever it is they report into, using them as an opportunity to discuss goals, progress, and obstacles in their team.

It's also important that you steer away from the traditional approach of seeking feedback only during annual performance reviews, and instead adopt an approach of continuous feedback conversations

Ultimately, you will be able to support managers in their role as coach or mentor, if you understand the areas they feel they need support with themselves.

6. Evaluate their performance

Unless you're regularly evaluating the performance of your managers and the teams they lead, you may not be aware of any problems until it's too late. 

Which subsequently puts not only their performance, but also their wellbeing at risk.

So, how do you effectively measure the performance of your leaders?

The honest truth is that there is no one solution or metric. You instead need draw on insights from a number of sources, including:

  • Their performance-related discussions with their line manager.
  • Your L&D programs. This may include the outcomes of their leadership coaching sessions, or their usage of your LMS.
  • The outcomes of their team, including performance, engagement, and even psychological safety.
  • The results of their team's health checks.
  • Feedback from their direct reports.
  • The retention rates in their team. 
  • How successful they are at developing the habits of highly effective teams. With a tool such as Saberr, you can even track these habits.

Equip managers with the right tools

An essential element of managing managers is to provide them with the right training, and equip them with the tools that will enable them to succeed in their role. 

Tools that give them the knowledge and resources they need to not only develop as great people managers, but to also adopt the habits needed for leading high-performing teams. 

When it comes to developing managers, however, one of the biggest challenges is learning retention. After all, many leadership development courses prove ineffective because the learning simply doesn't stick.

There's often a chasm between what they learn, and what gets put into practice in the real world. Saberr's leadership development programs close that chasm. 

In fact, our use of both experiential and digital coaching means we not only help your managers to develop critical leadership skills, but we also ensure that they're applying these newly acquired skills in the flow of their day to day work, thanks to our industry-leading software. 

You can learn more about how we can support you in developing bespoke leadership programs here, or you can schedule a time to speak to our team

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