Being a manager of managers is not the easiest gig, but there are practices you can implement to have a better chance to succeed.

As a manager of managers, your role shifts from leading one team to overseeing multiple teams and charters, often operating through other managers. This change in responsibilities requires a different approach, complete with its own set of challenges and opportunities. Here’s six areas to focus on when managing managers.

1. Empower decision-making and autonomy

Engineering managers need the autonomy to make the decisions that impact their teams. Trust your managers to make strategic decisions and allow them to exercise independence when leading their teams. Encourage a culture of ownership where managers feel empowered to take the initiative and innovate.

Regularly check in to offer support and guidance, but avoid micromanaging their decisions. For instance, allow your engineering managers to decide on the technologies and tools their teams will use. If a manager believes that migrating to a new framework will improve productivity, trust their judgment and support the transition. This not only empowers them, but also encourages innovation and responsible technology choices.

2. Focus on strategic alignment

Engineering managers play an incredibly vital role in ensuring that their team's efforts are in alignment with the broader business objectives of the company. It is essential to clearly communicate the company’s vision, goals, and priorities to your engineering managers so they can effectively relay this information to their teams. 

Make sure engineering managers understand how their teams’ work contributes to the overall strategy at various levels within the company. It is essential for managers who report to you to communicate the vision and strategy down to individual contributors (ICs). You can use skip-level one-on-ones to gauge how well this message is filtering down through the organization.

3. Cultivate leadership skills

Managing managers necessitates you to take on the roles of both a mentor and a coach, assisting them in honing their leadership capabilities. Invest in sending your reports to leadership development programs and create numerous opportunities for managers to refine and enhance their skills. 

As a manager of managers, you will often have insight into organizational problems that front-line managers might not. You can delegate the responsibility of tackling some of these problems to managers who will be a good fit. This will free up your bandwidth to focus on higher-order problems while providing growth opportunities for others. 

Provide detailed and constructive feedback frequently while also acknowledging and celebrating their accomplishments. Motivate them to mentor their own team members, thereby fostering an environment of continuous learning, development, and growth.

4. Foster effective communication

Effective communication is vital for managing managers, as you need to relay information accurately and efficiently to their teams. Establish clear communication channels and protocols to communicate progress on key initiatives, and flag risks. 

You could choose to hold a monthly execution review with all managers and senior ICs. Hold regular 1:1 meetings with your managers to discuss challenges, share updates, and gather feedback. Holding regular one-on-ones allows managers to come to you with their issues, ensuring that the right information gets flagged promptly. Model the right behavior in terms of transparency and openness to ensure managers feel comfortable bringing up issues and suggestions. 

Beyond synchronous 1:1 with managers, consider skip level 1:1s with ICs on a monthly basis. Another effective way to ensure everyone in your organization understands the vision, strategy, challenges and top priorities is to share regular updates on Slack or a similar medium. You can use this update to highlight wins, challenges, and risks, as well as showing appreciation for people in your organization who have gone above and beyond. 

5. Balance support and accountability

Engineering managers need support to overcome obstacles, but they also need to be held accountable for their teams’ performance. Provide the resources and support managers need to succeed, whether it’s additional staffing, training, or tools. At the end of the day, an engineering manager’s biggest source of growth will come from specific feedback and a targeted action plan.

For example, if a manager excels but struggles with presenting to executives, generic training might help. However, what will be most effective is attending a presentation yourself and providing detailed feedback afterward about what went well and what could be improved. Set clear expectations and performance metrics, and regularly review progress against these benchmarks. Address performance issues promptly and fairly, while also recognizing and rewarding excellence.

Here are key elements and an example to illustrate prompt and fair performance reviews:

  • Set clear expectations: Communicate job responsibilities, performance metrics, and company goals from the start.
  • Regular check-ins: Hold frequent meetings to discuss performance, address issues, and provide feedback.
  • Constructive feedback: Provide specific, actionable feedback on strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Data-driven evaluations: Base reviews on factual data and concrete evidence of work performance.
  • Address performance issues promptly: Quickly and fairly address performance issues, providing support and a clear action plan.
  • Recognize and reward excellence: Acknowledge and reward exceptional performance to boost morale and encourage excellence.

6. Operate at all levels

Effective managers of managers seamlessly transition between strategic oversight and detailed technical discussions. They understand high-level business goals and communicate them clearly to their reports. Simultaneously, they dive into technical details when necessary to support their managers and teams. 

This dual capability builds trust by showing a comprehensive understanding and commitment to both strategic and technical aspects of the job. When managers and ICs see that you grasp the technical challenges, they are more likely to trust your guidance and decisions. Similarly, when they observe your strategic effectiveness, they trust the product and business direction you advocate for.

Encourage your managers to adopt this approach, fostering a culture where strategic thinking and technical expertise coexist. By striking this balance, you create a resilient and adaptable leadership team capable of navigating the complexities of the engineering landscape.

Final thoughts 

Managing software engineering managers requires a shift in focus from the tactical to the strategic. By empowering decision-making, aligning on strategy, cultivating leadership skills, fostering effective communication, and balancing support with accountability, you can effectively lead your engineering managers to drive success for their teams and the organization as a whole.