Managing Managers: A Matter of Style

Sameer Kalburgi

VP of Engineering at Fieldwire



When you coach ICs style doesn’t really matter. ICs are managed by only one person and are used to be managed in one way only. As they are usually junior and less experienced engineers you can set the foundations for that relationship and introduce your approach as the norm.

On the other hand, when you are managing managers, they would bring their own style. There would be situations where you would do things one way, and they would do them the other way -- none of which is right or wrong.

Actions taken

Managing managers would require moving from giving directions on what should be done and how it should be done to conveying expected end results. People approach problems differently and as a junior manager, I would often override people telling them, “This is not how I would do it”. While in fact, there are many ways to solve the same problem and you will not be able to tell with certainty that something is right or wrong before it is executed.

Managers should be closer to the ground, and hopefully have better insight into what is going on and consequently, be able to come up with a better solution. If you hired people to work as your managers you should trust their abilities and decision making. You should be clear with them what are the goals to be achieved, what are the constraints and tradeoffs.

You should also provide them with a blank slate to do what they think is right instead of being overly prescriptive; otherwise, they won’t have a space to think creatively, take ownership, and overall give their best. At the same time, you should clearly emphasize that you are not letting them on their own but you are authorizing them to make the decisions and you are also holding them accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

Your managers shouldn’t be scared of accountability, because most decisions are reversible and accountability equals the responsibility to fix things. As a manager of managers, you will have to occasionally allow people to go down the path of making mistakes and learn. Most mistakes are not fatal failures that can’t be fixed and instead of overriding your managers, allow them to take a different route, fail, and learn from that as a part of their growing experience.

As a manager, I am in general mostly concerned with solving the problem at hand. I like decisions to come from the person most knowledgeable about the problem (local decision-making) and to adjust fast when things are not working. I like to be open about ideas but as soon as we have valid data showing us that we should change our course, we should waste no time. I like to instill the same qualities in my managers authorizing them to make the tough decisions. I particularly nurture and value when they can act fast and cut their losses.

Finally, I want my managers to be results-oriented and assess the impact on the business rather than be driven by how they or other people feel about an idea. “I think this is right/wrong” is not going to solve the problem or address the underlying issue. Therefore, I would encourage them to avoid endless discussions that end up in ‘aesthetical deliberations”.

Lessons learned

  • Being able to successfully manage managers is fundamentally different than managing ICs.
  • The more you are trying to control things, the harder it becomes to control them. This particularly applies to teams of all types -- exposing less control and allowing people to make their own decisions, usually result in a much better long-term outcome. However, this had to be balanced with short-term efforts to make individual decisions right.
  • Striking the balance between letting people grow and making them accountable is troubling most managers. As a manager, you should be able to differentiate between decisions that are reversible or fixable and those that are permanently damaging.
  • Let your managers measure themselves if they were able to achieve what they wanted to achieve. Have them learn to be purposeful and be able to learn from their actions.
  • Most effective, localized decision-making requires sufficient context to be shared at the ground level. It takes time to enable the process, but it will soon become evident that it is more effective than any top-down approach that involves you.

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Sameer Kalburgi

VP of Engineering at Fieldwire

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