Managing managers

Dear Hone, in your email you talked about the frustrations in the relationship you have with your manager. My impression is that you are not always clear about what she expects of you.

There are some pieces of work where you are simply left to get on with it. Others, for which you thought had full responsibility, where your manager always wants to check, dig into the detail and change what you’ve come up with. The challenge, as I understand it, is that you are never really clear about where she wants to be involved and where she’d prefer to be hands-off.

You are not alone. I hear similar thoughts expressed by other experienced specialists who know they deliver high quality results. And, just as often, I come across managers who know they do this and struggle to break out of the habit.

This is particularly true for people who, as you may do someday, go from being subject matter expert, deeply immersed in detail, to a managerial role. As manager, they now discover they have oversight of a much larger portfolio. It isn’t always an easy transition to make. A few make the adjustment easily and quickly, becoming competent leaders and coaches rather than practitioners. Others find it much harder to step away from hands-on-involvement in work they’ve really enjoyed and are skilled at doing. So, they juggle the responsibilities of management with ongoing involvement in the detailed work of the team they lead. It’s even harder for them when a manager’s manager or senior leader has a keen interest in a particular piece of work and expects the manager responsible to be ‘own it.’

In saying this, I’m not suggesting your manager is not contributing to the frustration you are experiencing. However, as you prepare for a conversation with her you may find it useful to consider the challenges of leadership she herself is grappling with. Empathising with her about the tensions she may be experiencing will provide the opportunity for a conversation you may not yet have had with her.

There’s another issue it may be useful to consider before you talk to her.

My first reading of what you want from your manager is role clarity. That suggests the two of you could sit down with your position description and review your responsibilities. What is in scope and what’s not? For what deliverables are you personally accountable and where are you simply required to be a contributor working with your colleagues and your manager? Sorted. Now back to work. But…

I’m not convinced it’s as simple as that. The expectations of us in today’s working environment are often multi-layered and more complex. Job descriptions rarely capture what we find ourselves doing. Which suggests to me we should focus more on what I will call situational clarity. What does this specific piece of work requires of me? For what aspects of this project do I have sole responsibility? What involvement does my manager want or need to have? Are there decisions she wants to make? How frequently do we need to meet?

What I’m suggesting is that rather than a one-off conversation about your role and responsibilities, it’s better to think of this on a project-by-project, situation-by-situation basis, clarifying as you begin how you and your manager will work. The key is to keep talking.

Now you may need to be the one to start this conversation, too. If your manager, for whatever reason, is not telling you clearly what she wants from you, ask. Tell her why this is important for you and for her. Explain how it’s likely to result in a very effective and satisfying way of working together.

Preparing well for this meeting will increase the likelihood of this being a purposeful conversation for you and your manager. My suggestion is that we add this to the agenda for next week’s coaching session.