How to grow a Manager of Managers?

How to grow a Manager of Managers?
Gardening together

Issue No. 3

This is a project by Jeremy Brown. I write about topics that I care about, such as building high performing teams that make great products, culture, leadership and technology.
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This issue is the third and last in a mini-series. I have been sharing my answers to a skills test I did during the interview process for a VP of Engineering role at a unicorn startup. (Part one and part two).

In this issue, I’m answering the question: What is your training model for a Director (= N+3) or Senior Manager (= N+2) so they can do this [implement the first two answers in this series] by themselves on their scope?

💬 In this issue, I cover:

  • the need to define a Standard of Performance
  • what is the difference between a Manager, Director and an Executive?
  • the Standard of Performance for a Director
  • some models I use to help people achieve the standard of performance

Side Note: I had a bit more time in my time box for this week’s newsletter to be able to expand my answer from the original answer I gave.

📏We Need to Define a Standard of Performance

In one of the best books ever written about business and leadership (which is actually about sport!) - "The Score Takes Care of Itself", Bill Walsh talks about creating a standard of performance to build an environment for excellence.

For anyone to perform at a high level, you need to establish a standard of performance for their role. Bill Walsh demanded extreme precision from his team. He and his coaches broke down high performance and then tackled each aspect relentlessly and from different angles.

“After careful analysis, [the coaches] identified thirty specific and separate physical skills—actions—that every offensive lineman needed to master in order to do his job at the highest level, everything from tackling to evasion, footwork to arm movement. Our coaches then created multiple drills for each one of those individual skills, which were then practised relentlessly until their execution at the highest level was automatic—routine ‘perfection."

With enough practice, excellence becomes habitual. It becomes the default. If you establish a standard of performance and stick to it no matter what, you will be able to perform under pressure. The Standard Bill set was the same, whether it was a big game, a preseason game, or practice. The Standard of Performance removed a lot of the extra hype that came with vital games and the stress and tension that went along with "needing to perform for the big game".

“By focusing strictly on my Standard of Performance, the 49ers were able to play the bigger games very well because it was basically business as usual—no “try harder” mentality was used.”

Like Bill and the 49ers, we need to establish a standard of performance for an Engineering Director or Senior Manager to perform at the highest level. Our standard needs to outline the critical skills necessary in their role. We then need to work together to practise and improve them relentlessly.

👔 Manager, Director, Executive, what is the difference?

It is helpful to highlight the difference between what we should expect a Manager, a Director, and a VP or C-Level Executive to do. I don't think you can define these roles based on the number of people they manage or even the title someone has. Instead, I prefer to define them by the behaviour their level requires and the amount of ownership we expect.

I like how Dave Kellogg breaks this down between Manager, Director and Vice President (I prefer Executive rather than VP).

I am talking about one of three levels at which people operate:  manager, director, and vice president.  Here are my definitions:
Managers are paid to drive results with some support. They have experience in the function, can take responsibility, but are still learning the job and will have questions and need support.  They can execute the tactical plan for a project but typically can’t make it.
Directors are paid to drive results with little or no supervision (“set and forget”). Directors know how to do the job.  They can make a project’s tactical plan in their sleep.  They can work across the organization to get it done.  I love strong directors.  They get shit done.
VPs are paid to make the plan. Say you run marketing.  Your job is to understand the company’s business situation, make a plan to address it, build consensus to get approval of that plan, and then go execute it.

As you go up these levels, I believe that soft skills overtake hard skills. Getting things done in a workplace requires combining what you know or hard skills and how to use your knowledge or soft skills. Being successful in your career requires a combination of soft and hard skills. When you start, hard skills are considerably more critical. As you go up these levels, your soft skills are vital to your success. The more senior you are, the larger the teams you lead, and the more significant the impact of your initiatives.

Many highly talented leaders never become executives because they didn't learn how to:

  • Continuously "sharpen the saw" and reinvent themselves.
  • Influence others. More significant initiatives require you to build relationships and influence others who often work in other company areas.
  • Manage their emotions through ups and downs with less support and acknowledgement than they had earlier in their career.

I highly recommend this blog post by Nikhyl Singhal on the "Three crucial skills that leaders must develop to become executives" for further reading on this.

🎚My standard of performance for an Engineering Manager of Managers (Senior Manager or Director level).

With this context in place, here is my attempt at defining the standard of performance for a Manager of Managers (Senior Manager or Director level in most engineering organisations).

I have broken down the role into the following areas they need to master to do their job at the highest level.

  • Personal Execution - Know how to prioritise and be efficient with their time. The organisation relies on people in these roles to promptly communicate. Delays can cause damage and even lose people or customers from the company.
  • Communication - speak and write clearly and concisely. Keep the flow of information as precise and succinct as possible. Communicate complex technical topics (why this bug happened, what caused this incident) in clear and understandable ways to non-technical colleagues. Understand what is going on even though they are not directly managing teams themselves.
  • Run the business - be accountable for results and consistently deliver via people, process and technology. Don't miss commitments or show up at the last minute.
  • Take the point on crucial initiatives and get them over the line. Such as reducing lead time, rebooting the hiring or onboarding process, improving developer experience, automating testing, etc.
  • Manage through Managers - Invest in finding and managing great people. Your team's strength will judge you. Suppose a director cannot grow or hire strong managers in their team. It usually means the Director was promoted beyond what their own experience or present abilities merit. You need to build trust with your direct reports while maintaining accountability for outcomes. Managing Managers also means coaching and mentoring their managers to use their strengths, not the Director's - which might mean coaching their direct reports to solve the problem in a way that the Director might not have.
  • Manage Upwards - Don't create too much noise or become an information black hole. Don't create surprises - make sure their leader is the first to know bad news and analyse where things went wrong and what is being planned to deal with the situation.
  • Manage Outwards and Optimise for the company's success - There is no place for competition in knowledge work. Build and maintain peer relationships, and be seen as someone to bounce things off rather than a competitor. Be the champion for your area of the company. Help to solve the problems of others rather than fighting them. Use your knowledge and network to support your leader.
  • Manage their behaviour - Organisations can be sensitive to the conduct of senior leaders. People need stability and consistency. A bad day, an inappropriate comment or an aggressive encounter can have a significant ripple effect. Know how to handle a disagreement with others, seek to understand their side first, and show them you are working towards the same goals. Manage their attitude. Learn to disagree and commit when a decision is made, and never undermine the decision in public. Don't be a blocker, be an unblocker, the person people go to get stuff done. Being a Director can be a lonely position. There are hard calls to be made with all the things they have to balance. It can be harder to be loved by your team than when you were a Manager. This position is demanding, so self-care becomes even more important for folks at this level.
  • Adaptability - a Director's people management and soft skills should be able to handle any situation that gets thrown at them. Such as remote workers, non-engineering reports, establishing culture across country borders, performance management of peers, etc.
  • Translate strategy into execution - They both work "in" the business (run) and "on" the business (build). Don't just handle tactical execution. Their product is the people, process and technology that make the product. Optimise for quality and flow. Understand and use systems thinking. Remove process where possible, yet know when to add things to improve collaboration and flow.
  • Understand the Business - Know what the company's business model is and how their team is connected to the business model. Explain this simply to their team and outwards to the organisation.
  • Understand Finance and Budgeting - Be able to translate how the company's finances work to their organisation. Own and manage a budget, and make decisions on headcount.

[I would love to develop this Standard of Performance further in a future post.]

🧑‍🏫Training Models

Establishing a Standard of Performance is a prerequisite to being able to help someone move up to the Director level and lead Director level folks. In this next section, I wanted to go into a couple of the models I try to use with the folks I lead to help them attain the Standard of Performance we have agreed upon together.

Task Relevant Maturity

The first is Andy Grove's Task Relevant Maturity. Grove describes it in the following way:

"How often you monitor should not be based on what you believe your subordinate can do in general, but on his experience with a specific task and his prior performance with it -his task-relevant the subordinate's work improves over time, you should respond with a corresponding reduction in the intensity of the monitoring."

70/20/10 Model of Learning

My second model is the 70/20/10 model of learning. 10% comes from formal training, 20% from coaching and mentoring, with 70% comes from getting hands-on by doing.

I combine these two models by:

  • understanding where someone lies in their task-relevant maturity
  • then identifying the formal training required
  • alongside the coaching and mentoring that I, or someone else, can provide to help them learn on the job.

🙅 Coaching and Mentoring are not the same things.

I see a clear distinction between coaching and mentoring and try to alter my style between the two. For example, I use mentoring more with lower task-relevant maturity and coaching with higher task-relevant maturity.

It is also important to share these models with my team and use them as a common language. For example, discussing their task-relevant maturity level for a particular task.

⏭ Skip level one-on-ones

In all of this, consistent skip-level one-on-ones are essential to understanding what is happening inside a Director's organisation. I could write much more on this, but my timebox for this week's newsletter is almost over.

I would not have been able to form the opinions I have without standing on the shoulders of giants. Here are some of the best resources I have collected in my library about this subject.

Three crucial skills that leaders must develop to become executives

Career Development:  What It Really Means to be a Manager, Director, or VP

So you want to be a director in a tier one technology company?

Getting in the room, and stay there

Mailbag: Resources for Engineering Directors.

That is all for this week folks, have a great week!

Jeremy (he/him)

Don't ignore your dreams, don't work too much, say what you think, cultivate friendships, and be happy.

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