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How to Manage Managers
 

Your company's managers are smart, committed, and passionate. How can you make sure they perform to their potential?

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When you work for yourself, as most entrepreneurs do, the notion of "managing" those you have hired to do just that may seem quaint in light of all the work you need to catch up on. But as the company you started begins to grow, and you hire more and more people to fuel that growth, it is a good idea to take a step back from the day-to-day grind and consider what it might mean to both you and your company if you devoted some of your time to thinking about how best to manage your managers. After all, the more people you empower to make decisions, and that free you up to think more strategically, the faster, at least in theory, your company can grow.

"Don't fall into the trap of believing that management is an indefinable art," says Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics, a workplace consulting firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "It's not. The key to managing anyone is to set clear performance expectations in advance, and hold the person accountable. That may be more difficult to do for managers than direct workers, but it's no less important."

How does one best managing a manager anyway? Here are some strategies to consider:

Managing Managers: Set the Vision

The first key to managing your managers is to make sure your managers know what they're managing toward.

One way to do this would be sharing clear short-term (one year) and long-term (three- to five-year) business plans, says Jenni Luke, national executive director of the Step Up Women's Network, a national membership organization for women: "This provides measurable goals to achieve in the short term and gives long term vision for the business so that when managers must make decisions independently, they have the proper strategic context in which to make them."

Another approach to aligning your vision with your managers, says Jill Morin, CEO of Kahler Slater, an interdisciplinary design and consulting enterprise in Milwaukee, is to ascertain answers to questions such as:

  • Do they embrace your organization's vision?
  • Are they on board with your core beliefs, your values, and your mission?
  • Do they have a clear image of what the future holds when the business achieves its vision for success?

"The bottom line," Morin says, "is without these essential starting points, it won't matter who or how you manage."

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Managing Managers: Document the Details and Communicate

As a boss, one of your goals should be to make sure that your managers have all the tools necessary to do their jobs well. As part of that, you should make developing an employee handbook, which contains policies on issues like vacation and over-time as well as structured feedback regarding performance a priority. "Having the handbook will help you set expectations with the team before problems arise, and they will arise," Luke says.

Managers need to understand not only the "what" but also the "why" behind any strategic plan," says Morin. That way, they can offer their own ideas on enhancing and executing the plan, and do so without needing your involvement every step of the way.

"Yes, Jack Welch said it first, but you cannot over-communicate the vision, goals, and strategies for the business, especially if your managers are smart, committed, and passionate about achieving success," she says. "And why would you have hired them in the first place if they weren't?"

Bi-weekly individual meetings and bi-weekly team meetings serve the purpose of checking progress against goals but also enable the sharing of best practices and experiences that others on your management team can benefit from, says Luke. Then, supplement these regular meetings with quarterly meetings focused on the bigger picture such as budget, product or program development or long-range planning so that the managers know they will be expected to contribute to this top-level thinking and planning. "Giving your managers the freedom to do the work and engaging them in planning should engender a sense of ownership in the success of the business unit which is exactly what you need," she says.

Dig Deeper: How to Communicate With Employees

Managing Managers: Measure Tasks

A key part of knowing how well a manager is doing is to establish straight-forward quantitative measures based on the performance of their team, says Luke, who suggests looking at objective goals set in your business plan such as:

  • Is your manager achieving revenue targets?
  • Are they operating on budget?
  • Have they developed new customers?

Dr. Alice Waagen, founder and president of Workforce Learning, a leadership development company in Washington, D.C., says that you can even establish clear performance guidelines about what makes up a good manager along the lines of something like:

1. A good manager creates short- and long-term goals for all staff.

2. A good manager sets realistic standards and targets to measure progress to plan.

3. A good manager provides specific, objective feedback on an ongoing basis, informing, enlightening and helping staff members improve their performance.

"For managers to succeed, they need time to learn to manage" she says. "And then, once they do, they need to be held accountable for their results."

"When you add all that up, it means that you need to clearly communicate to your manager what you expect them to accomplish through his or her staff," Muzio says. "For example, you might say, 'Your job is to make sure the five people who work for you make 400 widgets each week,' or, if the goals change, 'your job is to make sure each of the five people who works for you has a clear performance target, hits the target, and together those targets roll up to the output goal you and I set together each month. You can vary the structure, but keep the simple focus: Your job is to make sure your people produce what is necessary."

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Managing Managers: Manage Behavior

Employees usually don't quit businesses, they quit bosses. That means that while tracking how a team performs quantitatively is critical in evaluating a manager, "it should also be an equal priority to assess qualitative measures of skills such as leadership, strategic thinking, and business development instincts, which can be a far more challenging task," says Luke.

That's why you want your manager to maintain positive, functional relationships, Muzio says. "Don't dismiss expectations about relationships as soft or emotional; they are extremely practical," he says, pointing out that it costs at least two- to three-times an employee's annual salary to find a replacement. "Good interpersonal relationships lead to output consistency and group longevity. A manager who leaves unhappy, dysfunctional relationships in his wake is a manager that will cost you money in employee complaints and turnover."

So how can we actually measure and evaluate to these standards? Waagen suggests tips such as:

1. Look for telltale signs of bad management, such as missed deadlines or unusually high absenteeism or turnover. Chances are, if you do not see these key signs, the manager is doing a pretty good job.

2. Walk around and talk with the manager's direct reports. Are employees engaged and involved? Are they excited by their work? Do they appear to have a clear idea of the specific tasks or projects they need to accomplish and why?

3. Interview employees. Ask them when was the last time they talked with their manager? Probe whether or not they are happy on the job. Their responses can provide terrific feedback.

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Managing Managers: Be a Coach, Not a Referee

Even the best managers mess up sometimes, and "people problems" – which are usually brought to your attention when a subordinate comes to you to complain about his or her manager - are often the cause, says Morin of Kahler Slater. She suggests that you resist the temptation to get directly involved or, worse, to fix the problems yourself.

"Instead, use these challenges as opportunities to coach your managers on how to deal with conflict – personally, professionally, and productively – rather than ignore or dismiss it," she says. "Then you can circle back to assess progress."

One of the mistakes any CEO can make is forgetting to look in the mirror. Said another way, keep a close watch on your own behavior as a way to inspire your managers to emulate you, says Marilyn Suttle, a Detroit-based personal and professional development coach. To do that, she suggests asking yourself questions like:

  • Do you shy away from conflict?
  • Do you demand and force rather than encourage and inspire?
  • Do you ask questions and solicit input from others in the company?

"The point," says Suttle, "is to become a role model and mentor your managers into becoming the best versions of themselves."

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Last updated: Aug 23, 2010

DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.




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