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The Secret To Managing Managers

When you start off your career as an employee, you typically report to one manager. Once you study the hierarchy of the organization, you learn that your manager also reports to a senior manager. The senior manager, in turn, reports to a functional head, who reports to the head of the business unit or division, and so on. Senior leadership shoulders an immense responsibility, since they are managing managers. Let’s explore the secret to managing managers.

As one goes higher up the hierarchy, the trend is that the total number of people reporting to the more senior managers reduces, and mid-level managers typically have larger teams to manage. For example, the Head of HR may have approximately 5-6 senior HR managers under him, who in turn, have around 5-6 junior HR managers under each of them, and the hierarchy goes on.

At this point, although the HR Head has only a few direct reports, the responsibility of correctly managing those people is very crucial to the organization. Let me explain why.

How the HR Head manages his subordinates will determine how those subordinates manage their subordinates. The HR Head’s direct reports’ management style will reflect the style of the HR Head. Each decision made by the HR Head will also have far-reaching consequences in the organization. This is called the ripple effect.

This also sets in a Domino Effect of the ‘do unto others’ philosophy, with a twist – ‘do unto others as you have had done unto you’. This means that leadership is a cycle – most individuals (not all) tend to lead others the way they have been led. It’s only natural to learn behavior through observation. This shows how crucial managing managers is.

If you’ve ever played or watched a game of dominoes, you know that once one domino falls, it doesn’t take long for the remaining to cascade and fall dramatically as well, leaving none standing. This is the effect that a negative leadership style can have – if one falls, all fall.

This explanation is to help set the context on what managing managers entails.

21st-century overview – Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Leadership

A number of books have been written about managing managers, the ideal qualities of a manager, management styles and how to change ones’ thinking in order to get the best out of others.

One such book is called Executive Intelligence – What All Great Leaders Have by Justin Menkes. Drawing inspiration from psychology and business, Menkes lists out the different components of executive intelligence. He discusses the value of emotional intelligence (EI) in his book as well, where he explains it as a trait which has the potential to differentiate a great leader from a good manager.

In many cases, at the junior and middle management level, EI, although important, is undervalued as a trait. The higher up the hierarchy you go, the more critical the presence of EI becomes. For senior leadership, EI is not only essential when managing managers, but is also essential for an organization’s functioning.

This brings about another age-old question about whether leadership is an inbuilt quality or if it can be cultivated over time. That question aside, it is important to note that EI is inbuilt and it can be cultivated. EI is present in varying measures in all of us, and the higher the EI, the more impactful a leader one can be. To enable one to be an effective leader, the trait of emotional intelligence must be acknowledged to begin with, and then understood and honed.

Importance of Managing Managers – More On The Ripple and Domino Effects

Earlier on in the blog, I mentioned a ripple effect – let’s look in more detail at how this impacts an organization. An organization can be thought of as a complete ecosystem in itself. An ecosystem functions with a reciprocal cause and effect relationship.

The interactions of the people in the organization have an effect on one another and on the overall morale of the group. This means that the behavior of people at work determines the intensity and nature of their relationship with others and influences their behavior.

Considering this, when leaders display certain kinds of behavior, it causes a ripple effect. Leaders oversee their own team, or their workplace ‘pond’. If they flip a stone lightly into that pond, the effects are hardly felt. But if a stone is flung with force at that pond, there will be shockwaves felt all over the pond.

Similarly, when senior leadership makes certain kinds of decisions, regarding salary adjustments, promotions, or layoffs, for example, it causes a ripple effect and influences others. Their decisions have far-reaching consequences. Hence, senior leaders should keep in mind the fact that their decisions, and the way they behave affects everyone, whether they want it to or not. Due to this immense responsibility, their decisions should be well-thought-out and empirical (based on evidence), not whimsical.

The domino effect caused by leadership concerns their behavior with their subordinates. If a leader continually behaves negatively with his subordinate who happens to be a manager, that manager, subconsciously, may begin to treat his own team in a similar manner over time.

This is especially true if he is a first-time manager and is still learning how to manage people on the job.

As mentioned earlier, in a game of dominoes, if one domino falls, all fall. Similarly in an organization, if the head of the function falls (is an ineffective leader), this causes people down the hierarchy to fall like dominoes as well. Of course, this cannot be generalized across the board, and depends both upon the culture of the organization and the personalities of the first-time manager and the leader.

managing managers

The leader’s behavior thereby molds and shapes his subordinate’s behavior towards his own subordinates. While the ripple effect is a natural part of any and every organization, the domino effect can be prevented. So how do you ensure that the domino effect doesn’t topple your organization? Work on guiding your managers if they are managing managers!

The Key to Managing Managers

Managing managers is a skill which can be learned through patience and practice. Here are a few ways to efficiently and effectively manage your team of managers.

Be a Role Model

Senior leaders have their direct reports watching them manage managers 24×7. Direct Reports will begin copying their leader’s behavior over time which will influence their relationships with others at work. Senior leaders will have cultivated a work ethic over time, with experience, and it helps to ensure that managers understand this work ethic so that they can apply it in their own interactions with the people who report to them.

It also helps to be aware of how a leader’s behavior – in terms of temperament, behavior in meetings, during appraisals and even over emails is perceived and emulated.

Focus on Coaching

Instead of training managers to think in terms of deadlines and deliverables, it helps if senior leaders focus on grooming and coaching managers to think in terms of collaboration and achievement of goals. Instead of asking managers, ‘How’s project ABC going?’, a senior leader can ask, ‘Do you have enough support from the team on project ABC? Are people collaborating well with each other?’

This changes the focus and perspective of a manager from deadlines and dates, to partnership and finding a higher purpose in their work.

Recognize their Efforts

Human beings are social creatures and react well to being praised or recognized. The same concept applies to the workplace. Since managers learn from watching senior leaders, they can pick up positive aspects, or negative ones as well. If a senior leader inculcates the habit of praising their managers for a job well done (in public), not only does the manager feel like his work has been recognized, he also feels motivated to recognize his team, in turn. This creates a positive cycle of appreciation (and negates the domino effect!).

Give Managers Space to Lead

Managers, whether first time, or mid-level, need time and space to learn on the job, and to lead. They have their own work to complete, plus a team to manage. Now, when you elevate this to the level of senior leadership, in addition to the tasks mentioned below, senior leaders also think of the company strategy, organizational objectives, and budgetary concerns.

Since their list of responsibilities is long, it helps if senior leaders give their managers the space to lead their team in their own unique style instead of micromanaging. This also instills confidence in the manager and gives the senior leader enough mindspace to work on his own tasks, knowing that his managers are capable enough of managing their teams well. When the leader is capable of managing managers, he grooms the capabilities of the managers under him as well.

Skip Meetings

By this, I don’t mean that senior leaders should skip meetings 😊

In the IT industry, a skip meeting is conducted between a team member and his manager’s manager. For example, if A reports to B and B reports to C, a skip meeting is held between A and C (where they both skip level B).

managing managers

This gives a team member the platform to consult the senior leader and get feedback and insight into their own performance and prospects for growth within the company. If the team member and senior leader establish a rapport, the leader can even begin to informally or formally mentor the team member to help him identify career objectives and goals.

Get Feedback

It helps when senior leaders get regular feedback on their leadership style, coaching and mentoring. According to a research article by Harvard Business Review, the two ways in which senior leaders can seek feedback from others are either through asking them directly in a one-on-one discussion or via 360-degree feedback. Continuous and consistent feedback always helps, from top-down, or bottom-up.


Managing managers is one of the most rewarding tasks – to groom and coach young managers to be better leaders in the future, but it is one which needs to be handled with care and caution, since as mentioned earlier, both positive and negative actions of senior leadership have far-reaching consequences. By effectively managing managers using the techniques given above, you can reverse the domino effect to build a great place to work.

Are You Managing Managers? If so, Sproutlogix can support you!

Sproutlogix has a unique set of products which can help senior leaders manage managers.

Eval is a tool through which managers understand their strengths and areas of development – with the aid of psychometric tests and self-assessments. This also helps senior leaders manage managers better by understanding them and their working styles better.

By knowing their strengths, leaders can capitalize on that and help managers become more efficient. By knowing their areas of development, leaders can coach managers to work on those areas using Sproutlogix’s tools and assessments.

Loop is a 360-degree feedback tool which helps both managers and senior leaders gain insight into what their peers, mentors, and managers feel about them, and the pursuit of their goals, based on their behavior. This helps each stakeholder get continuous and consistent feedback.

Vibe is a mood-based survey which can help senior leaders assess the overall mood of the managers they supervise. This will help senior leadership know the overall level of satisfaction within the organization and make changes if required.

Write to us at [email protected] to know more about how we enable senior leaders, HR Heads, and function heads manage the managers who report to them.

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