In the classic management book, The Leadership Pipeline, the authors discuss the key transitions in leadership development, based on their observations of thousands of executives. One of the early turning points, they say, is learning how to be a manager of managers, a skill that can be quite challenging to master.*
Today, more than a decade later, that “rite of passage” remains just as difficult for many executives. Contributing factors are the same – ineffectual training, insufficient structure, and the like – but demographic and competitive factors are taking the “how to manage your managers” conundrum to new levels of acuity in many companies.
Innovation, for example, has become incredibly important for success in the marketplace. Many companies are facing increasing demand on their intellectual capacity at precisely the worst time: when their technical brain trusts are beginning to age out. As older workers retire, the shortage in technically-skilled employees has become acute. Front-line supervisors are tasked with enabling a smaller, less capable workforce to develop more sophisticated solutions for more demanding clients within tighter time frames. It’s a burning platform – one that requires a radically different set of employee management skills from front-line supervisors and their managers.
A key priority for our clients is educating managers on how to nurture the skills of their frontline supervisors so that everyone is working at the right scope and power match – instead of micromanaging or making decisions that are best left to the level below. It’s not enough to set direction. Managers of managers must develop new supervisory capabilities and skills around innovation and agility in their reports so they in turn can address the performance gaps in the workforce.
Often, the best solutions are the simplest ones with the longest track record. In leadership coaching, we draw on the ancient art (now science) of asking questions. Founded on neuroscience research, our “manager of manager” development programs show leaders questioning techniques that can help guide their reports to examine current ways of solving problems and identify new choices and options that increase their capability for action.
The technique is simple but robust. Managers of managers are taught to recognize two types of questions and their differing impacts – one focused on the near term and the other that takes a longer view. It’s kind of like the difference between having your tennis swing critiqued by your doubles partner right before a critical match versus the club pro who is interested in raising your whole game to a higher level.
- Near Term Questions tend to zero in on the immediate problem but not develop in others the capacity for analysis and creativity. Using this type of questioning, the manager of managers, in effect, takes over the problem-solving for the front-line manager and goes for quick resolution.
- Long View Questions approach the problem from a coaching orientation and are designed to help the front-line manager identify patterns and emergent solutions. Having to think about and answer these types of questions will help build managerial skills.
Here are some examples of how questions might be framed differently, depending on your intent:*
Since most managers were rewarded for solving problems, their natural inclination is to go with Near Term questions – a habit that can be hard to break. And, indeed, in times of crisis, that may be called for. The rewards are more far reaching, however, when the alternative approach can be applied. After all, developing problem-solving and managerial skills in others IS the job of a manager of managers. Our program helps these leaders recognize there is always a “fork in the road” – one leading to quick fixes and the other to a more adaptive and innovative future that will benefit them and the business overall.
Many managers tend to jump in and problem solve. If you manage other managers, how have you made the adjustment to developing those key skills in others? Share your thoughts.
* Charan, R., Drotter, S., Noel, J., (2011) The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership Powered Company. (2nd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.