It's possible you went into the COVID-19 crisis with a seasoned team and an established understanding of how to manage your managers.
Even if you did go into working from home with all the right strategies for managing managers, most of those strategies were developed with an understanding that everyone would be side-by-side in an office. It’s one thing to watch your managers in action and see where they might need coaching. It’s another to try and decipher from messages and occasional video calls how both a manager and their entire team are performing.
With remote work the current reality — and likely to play at least some permanent role in the way we continue to work — it’s worth rethinking how to manage other managers.
Working manager vs. managing manager: Setting the right expectations
Before you start listing ideal manager traits, consider what your managers are being asked to do. A managing manager has a clear-cut job — motivate and rally their people, giving them the direction and support they need to do their work. It’s no doubt more difficult to do that job remotely, but they still wake up each morning with a pretty clear brief.
Working managers, on the other hand, balance two jobs — two jobs that have almost definitely gotten more difficult since COVID-19 hit. Not only do they have to figure out how to effectively run a team, they have to figure out how to effectively do their main job under new circumstances as well.
In both cases, your managers are dealing with a different set of personal circumstances, which may include sick family, financial troubles and lack of child care. And they’re helping their teams do the same. Understanding what they’re juggling and setting the bar accordingly will keep you from being frustrated when unrealistic expectations are missed — and keep you from burning out your team.
What are the qualities of a good manager at your organization?
Once you’ve identified the limits your managers are working within, think about what skills are most important for your senior managers to have. Sure, there are universally prized leadership traits, but that doesn’t mean all of them should be universally prized at your organization.
Think about what matters most at your organization. If it’s retention, you need managers to have a certain set of skills. If it’s productivity, that’s a different set. Imagine every management skill resting somewhere on a matrix of employee output. If you know what goals are most important to you, you can find the quadrant of skills you should prioritize.
How to manage managers you can’t see — listen
How do you manage other managers when everyone’s remote? Ask them what they need. It may sound simple, but it’s skipped all the time. After all, you’re dealing with the same new pressures and changes your managers and their teams are.
Instead of trying to identify and solve a problem, let people share their experiences. Maybe things are working better than they have before. Maybe people already have ideas about what needs to improve. Listening saves you time.
Listen to your managers’ challenges
Start by asking your managers how they feel things are going. Part of their job is to identify deficits, they should be able to do the same for themselves. Listen to what they say. A good manager will take responsibility, even if they don’t necessarily see the solution right away.
With that in mind, you also need to be realistic about how honest an environment you’re creating. If the company has just announced layoffs, for example, don’t expect a clear and lucid breakdown of all the things going wrong. If your managers don’t feel comfortable talking to you, it might be because you have some work to do yourself.
If your company doesn’t have a culture of honesty or transparency, consider how you might get the same intelligence anonymously. Surveys or other tools may help managers to open up about what they need without fear of repercussion.
Listen to their teams’ stories
There are two sides to every story — in this case the managed and the manager. Ask employees about the work they’re doing, how the team is functioning, how they’ve adapted to remote work.
Here, you’re listening not just for specific opportunities to improve management, so much as you’re listening for a general sense of team happiness. Are people responding with multiple sentences, or monosyllabic answers? An engaged team will have something to say, it’s the disengaged teams you might have to dedicate some more resources to — such as pulse surveys. Regularly checking in on employees can augment these team interviews, keeping a pulse on overall levels of satisfaction.
Consider what management resources you’re missing
All of these techniques on their own will only give you a fraction of the picture. But together, they should tell enough of a story for you to identify the coaching and resources needed to support your managers.
Start with what’s missing. If it’s enthusiasm, camaraderie or collaboration, offer training on how to break down barriers and create a sense of team unity while remote. If it’s innovation, teach your managers how to make room for failure on their teams so employees feel safe pushing limits. If it’s productivity, maybe managers need more tools to proactively engage their teams.
As you go through this process, consider what the company can do as well. Coaching managers is great, but systems help everyone. If communication appears to be an issue, consider whether you can roll out a companywide tool to help. If everyone’s feeling disconnected, ask how the company might create remote social events to bring people together.
Above everything, listen for fear. If your managers and their teams are hesitant to talk and evasive on particulars, they may just be worried about losing their jobs. Managers can and should help to mitigate these fears by passing along information about the health of the company and creating a sense of trust, but that only works when they have information to share. A quick all-company meeting to go over the state of business might do more to improve morale and productivity than anything a manager can do. It also shows that you’re willing to take in feedback and make changes, proving that it’s safe.
Managing managers effectively means leading by example
The hardest part of navigating how to manage managers in a company may be holding yourself to even higher standards. All the advice, support and tools in the world won’t make a difference if they’re not being used by the top of the organization.
Your people are trained to emulate their bosses, from the newest worker to the most senior manager. It’s why finding struggling managers and helping them improve is so important — their behavior teaches the people under them what to expect and how to act. It’s also why you need to be just as ruthless when it comes to evaluating your own behavior. Not only will it make your managers more likely to take your advice, it’ll make them less likely to need it in the first place.