Forming the unicorn

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Managing managers

This article is part of a series on managing managers.

What’s the best way to level managers up that are reporting to you? It’s by understanding their output and working with them to improve it through a continual virtuous cycle. 

This idea isn’t new or novel: Andy Grove wrote the equation below in High Output Management way back in 1983 when he was CEO of Intel:

A manager’s output = the output of their team + the output of the organization under their influence

I’ve referred to this many times in the past, because it’s the equivalent of e=mc² for managers. Simple, elegant, yet quite groundbreaking. However, previous references in my articles have used the equation within the context of a manager figuring out how best to spend their time and effort with their ICs and peers to maximize their output. However, if you’re managing managers you’re going to have to think about this equation a little differently because of the managerial role that your direct reports have.

Very few managers are ever the complete article (a unicorn). That includes you and I. This is because being a manager involves a great number of different skills, from the technical to the interpersonal, and no one person is maximally perfect at all of them. That’s entirely normal, and as their manager, your responsibility is to help them fill in all of the gaps by working with them to identify their competency level at all of these different skills, then have them seek out opportunities to delegate, collaborate and educate themselves in order to begin their transformation into that mythical unicorn.

Delegation, collaboration, and education

These three core activities are what you should expect all of your managers to continually work on, and you can neatly bucket their activities into each of them.

  • Delegation is the bread and butter of having their team get their work done. We’ve written about delegation in detail previously. This fits into the output of their team part of the management equation.
  • Collaboration is working with their peers in order to maximize the effectiveness of their team’s work, ensuring that efforts are aligned, opportunities are identified, and that work isn’t duplicated. This is the output of the organization that they influence part of the equation.
  • Education involves both self-directed learning (pull) and learning through your coaching relationship with them (push). Improvements here amplify the output in the previous two areas.

An example: the CTO

Let’s frame this by thinking about a CTO of a large technology company. They are accountable for running the Engineering department, reporting to the CEO. They have a number of VPs reporting to them running the various divisions of Engineering. Their peers are the other C-level staff, such as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Chief Product Officer (CPO) and Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) who are accountable for the other departments of the company respectively.

We mentioned above that when managing managers you should be working with them to ensure good delegation, collaboration and education. Let’s think about how the CEO could be working on these areas with the CTO.

  • Delegation: It’s likely that the CEO won’t have too much input on the exact technology choices being used to build the product, however they’ll have a vested interest in how they’ve decided to structure their divisions and teams so that the technology strategy is being delegated – and therefore implemented – effectively through their VPs. The CEO will also want to ensure that the CTO is able to delegate all of the operational work to their layer below so that the CTO has time to work on the current and future strategy of the department, rather than needing to get swept into the details of making the trains run on time.
  • Collaboration: An effective Engineering department is nothing without collaboration with the other departments in the company. The CEO will be wanting to ensure that the CTO is regularly collaborating with the CRO in order to understand what current and prospective customers are thinking about the product, to ensure that a close bond exists between the CPO and the product strategy so they can plan and execute it together, and that the go-to-market strategy lead by the CMO properly shines a light on all of the innovation being delivered by Engineering.
  • Education: A tenured CEO will be an experienced leader, so can coach the CTO on leadership skills so they can become better at the two activities above (push). They can help them think through problems, discuss the company strategy, and point them at areas in which they can improve their impact as a leader. Additionally, the CTO will want to invest time in themselves to increase their own skills (pull) by requesting specific coaching support from the CEO or an external coach, by keeping up to date on the latest developments in the industry and by watching talks, by building their network and reading books, and also by occasionally diving deep into high priority or challenging projects within the department to assist in their execution. This in turn allows them to delegate and collaborate better, continuing a virtuous cycle of increasing their output.

Mapping out a manager’s skills

So let’s think about how you can apply this technique.

Getting the conversation underway with your managers can take the form of a coaching session that you can run with them individually. 

Firstly, you can run through the Andy Grove managerial output equation and show how delegation affects the output of their team, and how collaboration affects the output of those that they influence.

Together you can focus on both their delegation and collaboration in turn and explore how this currently manifests in their work, where it works well, and where it can be improved. Then, once you’ve done that, you can focus on the areas where it can be improved to see how they can do so either via push (i.e. you coach them or get involved yourself) or via pull (i.e. they invest in self-directed learning and initiatives to get there).

You can then form this into a plan to increase their output as a manager as per the equation. If you want it to be more formal, then perhaps try a 30-60-90. This can be a coaching topic that you both revisit regularly in order to measure progress and to identify further areas that you can assist them with.


Helping them form their Voltron

There are parallels with the concept of filling in gaps with an excellent article by Lara Hogan on forming a Manager Voltron. The premise in that article is that if you aren’t getting the support that you need from your own manager, then you can take the problem into your own hands and build a diverse crew around you that enables you to fill the gaps in your own skill set. For example, if you’re not getting the feedback that you need, you can build a network of others in the business that you trust that can give you it without needing to wait, or depend on, your manager.

This too is something that you help your direct report form. For all of the education they can receive via push, it doesn’t necessarily have to come from you. Instead, you can help them build their network in order to surround them with a crew that can be their very own Voltron, allowing them to get the best of both worlds: a manager that is deeply invested in their success, and also a peer network that challenges and elevates them.

So remember: delegation, collaboration and education. You’re responsible for making it happen. And the effects can be transformational.

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