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Becoming a Manager of Managers

After I shared my article about the next career moves as a senior developer, someone asked me the following question over the weekend:

“I’m a senior engineer who recently switched to leading a team of engineers. How do I grow in the managerial career path and become a manager of managers?”

It’s a great question, and not a trivial one. Becoming an engineering manager is often straightforward, but the next step, becoming a manager of managers, ends up being a career blocker for many.

If you’ve been wondering the same thing, then the first step is to look at your current workplace by addressing the following questions:

  1. Did you see any colleagues becoming a manager of managers via an internal process over the past year?
  2. What type of projects did these colleagues work on, with who, and in which department? Can this be reproduced?
  3. Is your department or a nearby department growing, and will a position of manager of managers open soon?
  4. Do you see yourself staying at your current company for the coming two to three years?

If you could answer YES to all of the above, it means there is a chance you could grow internally. From there, you have to start planning to position yourself so you get the job when it opens.

If you answered NO to any of the above, then you’re in the wrong company, and it’s time to plan a move. Selecting the right next job and company, so it’s aligned with your career aspirations, is going to be a crucial step.

In this article, I’ll be diving into both cases by providing a guide on how you can plan this career move, and if you’re lucky enough to get a shot at it, how to handle your transition into your new role.

In addition, as I’ve run dozens of leadership interviews and selection processes, and as a manager of managers myself, I’ll be sharing insider information on how managers will evaluate you and will decide whether you get the job or not.

Growing inside your company

If after assessing your current situation you conclude that it makes sense for you to try and grow internally, then you have to start building a plan that addresses all aspects of that growth.

Building relationships is going to be key for you getting the job. Indeed, when the job opens there’s going to be a selection process, likely committee-based or interview-based, and the people in this selection process will have to make a collective decision as to whether or not they think you’re ready.

To increase your chances of success, you have to start thinking about what is important to those key decision makers in terms of personal values, behaviors, and deliverables, and you have to start acting in a way that’s aligned with those. And yes, that means getting into office politics, and also yes, you have to start getting good at it if you want to grow.

Office politics doesn’t mean that you have to lie or be sneaky. There are ways of building healthy and honest work relationship with someone, the simplest one being to find the interests you have in common outside of work, and which are the problems and opportunities going on at work that you both want to solve. Once you found those commonalities, start sharing and collaborating.

Growing your skills

Another major part of your internal growth plan will revolve around acquiring the skills that are needed for the job you’re targeting. For a manager of managers, this often involves:

  • Leading organizational processes and changes
  • Doing and managing through other people
  • Aligning multiple teams under a shared vision
  • Ensuring the high performance of your people and teams
  • Managing stakeholders and building relationships

The list could go on, but those are already a good starting point. Then, you’ll have to demonstrate during the selection process that you have the relevant skills and experience.

To get there, you need to start doing the following:

  1. Identify the skills in which you have gaps, and be systematic in addressing them.
  2. Find projects on which you can apply those skills so that when you’ll be interviewed later, you can tell stories about the challenges you overcame and the experience you developed.
  3. Train yourself to tell those stories in a convincing and compelling way, so you don’t mess up during the selection process.

I could go into more details on that, but that’s would be the topic of an entire article. For now, you can search online for content around “How to grow skill X”, and also “How to answer leadership interview questions.”

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Applying to jobs outside your company

Now let’s imagine that you did your own assessment of your career situation and your work environment, and you concluded that you won’t be able to grow at your current company. Then you have to start looking for jobs outside.

But sadly, when applying to jobs in other companies, it’s unlikely that anyone will give you a shot at being a manager of managers if you can’t prove you have the relevant experience.

I know that because I’ve been on the hiring panels of various leadership positions and I’ve conducted dozens of leadership interviews, and I wouldn’t hire someone who cannot demonstrate the relevant experience. And here is why.

Imagine I’m interviewing someone for a leadership position. Imagine that this person can’t show the relevant past experience or skills, but he’s telling me “I’m a fast learner, I’m very motivated, I believe I can grow, etc.” That’s all nice that he’s saying that, but it doesn’t mean anything to me, because it’s not evidence and facts that I can verify and assess.

If I hire this person, then I have to spend the next 6-12 months investing my time and energy into growing this person, while not knowing if, in the end, he’s really going to pull it off and be the right cut for the job.

Instead, whenever I’ve had a leadership position open and for which I was able and willing to grow someone into, I’ve always taken a bet on someone internal. That’s because with someone internal, I had seen them behaving in specific situations.

This gave me enough evidence to know that they could do at least part of the job, and that the risk I’d be taking by giving them a bigger scope was limited and calculated. I usually also had enough of a relationship with those people that I could trust them to some extent.

Any bet I’d make on someone external, and who I never saw in action, would always be a higher risk compared to someone internal, and therefore not worth it.

Note that a few companies might give you a shot for a job above your current one, but for that, you need to demonstrate a differentiation factor that would be a huge upside for them. For example, if you have extensive experience with SRE/DevOps and they are desperately looking to fix their infrastructure, or if you have experience with building physical hardware products and they’re going in that direction with zero knowledge, so on and so forth.

But having such differentiation factors and finding the companies that need those has a lot to do with luck and timing, which isn’t something you can easily systematize or reproduce. What you can do is keep an eye out for those opportunities when they show up, and on the side, keep on building a more solid plan.

It results that when applying outside, realistically you have to apply to jobs at the same level as your current one. But you don’t want to change jobs only to end up in the same situation as you are today, therefore you have to select the right opportunity which would allow you to grow to your next step.

From that point on, your responsibility is to do your homework and due diligence on the company and department you’re applying for.

Picking the right jobs and companies

If you’re interviewing because you are looking for better career opportunities, the best you can do is being honest with the people you meet during your interviews.

Tell them “I’m applying because I’m really interested in the role and the company due to reasons X, Y, and Z. I also have the ambition to become a manager of managers within the coming 18 months, and hopefully make myself even more useful to your company. I also need your help to figure out if you believe it’s realistic.”

Then comes the part when you have to interview them:

  • How do you see the company growing over the coming 18 months?
  • Will a few positions of manager of managers be open?
  • Have internal people been given a chance to grow into such positions? What did their transition look like?

And even if you get positive answers from the people you talked to, you still have to do your homework and find information from other sources, so you can cross-validate what you’ve been told. You can ask people in your network, and check what is being said about the company in the news and on websites such as Glassdoor.

Another thing for you to figure out is who will be your manager, because this person is going to play a key role in your growth. What are your impressions of this person? Is this person equipped to help you grow and guide you to the next stage? Does this person have plans to grow into a higher position soon?

If the answers and information you’re getting do not check out, then there’s no point continuing with that hiring process, because you’ll end up in an environment that’s not aligned with your career goal. So politely decline and move on to the next hiring process.

If you do that regularly enough, you’ll end up finding something that matches your need. Be patient though, because depending on which city or market you’re searching into, it could take you one or even two years before you find a really solid match.

Handling your growth journey

Assume that you were successful in growing either via an internal process or via changing jobs, and that someone finally gives you a shot at becoming a manager of managers. Now what?

The first important milestone is ensuring that you cover all your bases and that you learn the ropes. For that, you’ll need to find a mentor, or multiple mentors, to help you identify your skill gaps, and fix those gaps. You can also refer to the “Growing your skills” section above.

If your manager is decent, then he can be a mentor to you. If you have doubts about your manager’s capacity to help you learn and grow, then you have to find other managers around you who would be willing to mentor you and provide you feedback once in a while.

If you’re interested in learning more about what are mentors and coaches, and what the relationship with a mentor should look like, check out my article on the topic, Coach or Mentor: What is the Difference and How To Choose?

You can also check out other resources like books, and there’s one in particular that I find amazing and that keep getting back to myself even years in the job, it’s High Output Management by Andy Grove.

Another book that will come in handy is The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins, which will help you formulate an assessment of the situation that you’re inheriting as a manager, and create a 90-day plan as to how you’re going to onboard yourself, tackle low-hanging fruits, and build relationships.

The second important milestone, which is going to happen in the background of working on your managerial skills and filling in your gaps, is a change of mindset.

Indeed, when you lead a team and you manage individual contributors, you’re very close to the actual outputs and contributions, and you’re often yourself still producing individual contributions. In this context, it’s easy to get personal satisfaction from your job because you can still do things yourself.

But when you become a manager of managers, you can no longer do those things yourself, because it’s no longer your job. And you cannot either go ask the individual contributors in your managers’ teams to get things done, because you’d be short-circuiting your managers and undermining their authority.

Instead, you have to learn how to manage indirectly, or manage through your managers, and in addition to that, you have learn to get satisfaction not from doing things yourself, but from guiding people into doing things and watching those people do it.

Learning how to become good at managing through others and taking satisfaction in doing so will take you time. From what I’ve observed from my own experience and others around me, it generally takes 12-18 months to adjust and become somewhat effective at it.

There are also people who never get good at it. The outcome for them on their respective personalities. If their ego gets in the way too much, they become bitter and entitled, and they end up quitting because they cannot accept the idea that they failed.

And then there are also the people who try the job for a while, become decent at it, and then decide it’s not for them and either switch back to full-time engineering, or to an entirely different role.

Conclusion

I’ve covered how to look at your current environment to figure out if you should plan to grow internally or change jobs. Then for each case, what you can do to increase your chances of landing in an environs men that’s aligned with your ambitions, and what you can do to starting growing your skills.

Growth is also about luck. It’s about being at the right place at the right time, which isn’t under your control. What you can do is prepare so that when the opportunity comes knocking on your door, you have the relevant experience and you can demonstrate that to the people who are part of the decision process.

I want to end this article with the most important thing of all when I myself think about my own career planning, which is: don’t pick your next job just based on salary or based on a fancy job title that you’ll be getting.

There are more important things in life, for example: what would this next job enable you to learn, what kind of life experiences will you be having, will this allow you to enjoy free time with your friends and family, and more importantly, will you be happy waking up every day for the coming years and showing up to work?

Feel free to join the conversation by dropping a comment below.

And until next time, wherever you’re at in your personal growth and career development, I wish you good luck!

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Published inLeadership and Management

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