Here’s the final part of my series on middle management. In this one, I talk about how to deal with a promotion where you end up managing people who used to work in the same capacity as you – your former peers, so to speak. If you haven’t yet, do check out the first of the series on managing upwards, and the second one on delegation.
Moving your way up along the management ranks often comes with the awkward position of managing people who were your former peers, particularly people who have managed other teams alongside you. The question in mind is often, “do I have the right to manage people who have pretty much the same, and in some cases, more tenure than I do? Don’t these people know more than I do?”
I frequently hear about this situation from newly appointed team leaders in one-on-ones, and I can definitely relate. I’ve been in that position before, moving from a section manager role to a department manager (yep, middle management) role. The managers who ended up reporting to me were people who started out in the company around the same time I did (some even earlier), and who became managers also at the same time I did. Making matters even more difficult at the time was the fact that some of them had more overall experience in the industry than I did.
What unfortunately happened next was a strong reluctance on my part to lead. I continuously reused (without any changes whatsoever) performance evaluations from our previous boss. I held back on feedback because there was a nagging voice that kept saying “they know what they’re doing and don’t need my input”. Upper management bypassing me and talking directly to my reports actually felt like a relief – it meant I didn’t have to awkwardly pass on directions to them.
I eventually got the hang of exchanging feedback and sharing information with my reports. But for more sensitive things like performance evaluations, the reluctance hardly ever went away.
In hindsight, I could have done a whole lot better in that transition. Here are a few things I believe would make for a better transition into managing managers.
Understand that it’s not about all of the skills, only some of them.
Undoubtedly, there will be people who are better than you at so many things and there’s a chance you’ll end up managing them. One of the most harmful notions that hinders an engineering manager’s growth is the belief that you are responsible for being the best coder in the team and the wellspring of technical know-how.
“Hire people smarter than you.” That’s an often-quoted but underappreciated gem in management wisdom. As a manager, it’s important to be aware that not only is it okay for your reports to be better at you at technical work, it’s actually an ideal situation. Your job in management is to make sure that eventually becomes your reality.
It’s important to remember that management requires a different skill set compared to what a coder needs. Focus your efforts on building these skills – delegation, prioritization, feedback, empathy, and more – and you increase your chances of succeeding at your role. Anything other than these might be something worth delegating instead.
Set expectations and make sure they’re mutually understood.
A very practical way I could have handled the transition was to sit down with my reports and former peers and ask them about what they expected of me. Likewise, I should have made known to them what it would probably take for me to be able to successfully help them. Establishing that understanding would have set a good path towards working together in a more productive way.
There’s a tendency to avoid the topic, especially when there isn’t a healthy culture of communication in your organization. Sometimes, that works out to an extent, and people just freely do what they think they need to do. But almost all the time, things turn out much better when expectations are understood and work is done accordingly.
Ask questions often.
It seems silly but in my experience, people often really are afraid to ask questions. There’s a variety of reasons for it. Sometimes, it’s discomfort in a social situation or simply a lack of trust in the situation and in others. Other times, we’re afraid to make a fool of ourselves – in other words, a lack of trust in our own competence.
It’s true that asking questions sometimes feels like a sign of incompetence but that feeling is almost always on the person asking questions. I’ve found in my experience, once I overcame this fear, that people often appreciate being asked questions and rarely ever see it as a sign of ignorance.
Asking questions often helps to understand your report’s situation and contributes a lot towards aligning expectations. It’s a great way to find out how you might add value for him or her despite the gaps you may have in technical knowledge. More than that, asking questions is also a great way to fill in those gaps in your knowledge, which could lead to more meaningful collaboration.
Remember that management is not an authority thing – it’s simply a different role.
Managing a manager shouldn’t alter the authority structure. In fact, it’s much healthier to think of it as simply a different set of responsibilities that the organization needs. In any case, decisions need to be made based on expertise and not on the organizational structure.
The principle of “servant-leader” is now commonly accepted in management schools of thought. I find this mindset to really help in understanding how to effectively manage former peers. For example, you may find yourself reluctant to hold 1-on-1’s with your reports, not wanting to waste their time. But if you hold the mindset of these meetings as a way to find areas you can help them with, you’ll start to see appreciation for these talks in yourself and in others.
Seeing a promotion as a shift in the authority structure further contributes to the mindset that you need to be good at everything to be an effective manager. In fact, all you really need is to be great at setting context and expectations. If you do that right, you can watch your team flourish in their own space.
What struggles do you currently face in your role as a manager? I’d love to hear your thoughts and maybe I can help you with a little of my own insight. Let me know via my contact form, or fill in this quick survey to help me help you better.
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.