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Managing Managers: How to Stay Close to Problems on the Ground

New Manager Of Manager

10 November, 2020

Yan Collendavelloo
Yan Collendavelloo

Senior Engineering Manager at Improbable

Yan Collendavelloo, Senior Engineering Manager at Improbable, discloses how he was concerned as a new manager of managers about staying timely thoroughly informed about problems on the ground.

Problem

When you are directly managing a team, everybody on the team feels close by. When I was a manager, if I needed to know something or get a problem solved, I would just turn around and engage with one of the engineers on the team. Likewise, implementing a change could be as straightforward as getting everyone in a meeting room, talking about it and implementing it the very next day.

When I stepped into managing managers, the number of people on my teams grew by 3x. If I needed something, I could no longer just turn around and ask a question. I also felt it was more difficult to basically just know what was going on. If I wanted to change something, it was not as easy: I could not just literally have a meeting with 30 people and get it started the very next day. I had to adjust my habits significantly.

Actions taken

First off, I had to accept that by managing managers I will be further from the ground and ‘engineering reality’. I also had to learn to trust my managers and their ability to take care of problems. That implied that I should take a step back and remove myself from the actual problem-solving on the ground. For example, when confronted with a problem, my direct reports are always the first people I talk to. Instead of falling into the trap of giving them advice on how to solve a problem, I ask them what their thoughts are on how to solve it and leave them with enough space to talk to their team and come back to me later.

Then, once presented with a comprehensive solution, I’d make sure processes are here for stakeholders like me and others to ask questions and to poke holes in the solution. Instead of coaching directly for immediate performance, it’s all about coaching for growth of my direct reports.

Also, instead of trying to figure out by myself what were the problems the team was struggling with and trying to solve those, I had to learn to encourage my managers to come to me and share what they thought were the problems. I found that frequent weekly one-on-ones are a great tool for that. On an average week when I’m working, I make sure I have at least 30 minutes of one-on.ones with each of my direct reports, not only leaving space to just ask them what’s on their mind but also making sure we discuss topics of substance.

Lessons learned

  • Managing managers is very different from managing ICs and will require a significant change on your part. One of the most demanding aspects of the transition was that I was not as close to problems as I was before and that I had to rely on other people to solve those problems.
  • Investing in your managers is crucial as they will be the ones solving those problems. As their manager, you should create opportunities that will allow them to continuously learn and grow.
  • Be very clear on goals and objectives. Your managers should understand well the vision and goals as they will be the ones conveying them to the team and ensuring the alignment. They will also be echoing any communication to the teams, so make sure they are equipped to do so and contextualize them for their team.
  • When you are managing ICs you may try one thing and course-correct it the next day. But when managing managers, you will have to be more clear in your direction. Opportunities to try different things on the go will be limited. That will also affect the velocity of changes -- as you start managing managers any change you would want to implement would take much more time.
  • Skip one-on-ones are also useful to get a pulse of what is happening on the ground. I try to meet everyone in my department every 6 to 9 months.

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