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How to manage managers

February 2, 2017 Articles, In the news, Management No Comments
Managing managers

Andrew O’Keeffe ©2017

Anyone promoted from being a manager to being a manager of managers, quickly realises what a jump that step is. In human instincts terms we go from being the leader of a “family” team to being the leader of a clan.

The subject is on my mind as I recently helped someone plan their actions with this promotion – deciding the few deliberate things that would make a big difference. So this newsletter is aimed to help people who are in this level role already, who might soon take this step or is in a position to help others successfully make this step.

The Role

The role I am describing is the head of department, a location or operating unit. The role probably has up to about eight other managers directly reporting to it and the role has between about 30 – 80 people in the department or unit. In moving from a first-level manager to now a second-level manager you have moved to a significantly greater level of complexity and impact on people.

Clan Group

Leadership quality of the clan group is critical because it’s at the clan group that we gain our sense of identity. Long-term subscribers to this newsletter will know that the size of the clan relates to the size of the brain. We are a brainy species and we can handle being one of up to about 150 people. Ancestral groups lived in clans of about this number.

Along with the relationships amongst our immediate “family” team, our sense of belonging and our engagement is driven by the culture of, and the quality of relationships, in our clan group. The leader has the biggest impact on the nature of the clan.

The Objective

From a people-leadership perspective, the objective is to give people in your clan a strong sense of belonging, knowledge that their role and contribution is important, feelings of psychological safety and that you ensure social harmony in the group.

Recommended Actions

The tips described below arise from human instincts and relate to the leadership of your clan. I am not covering here elements of the role involving strategy, business performance nor your role as an immediate leader of a team. What specific actions should you take to achieve the desired impact of your role as a clan leader responsible for up to about 150 people?

1. Gossip test:
decide what you want your narrative to be. What do you want people to say about you? You know people will talk, and their clan leader is a valid subject to talk about and trade opinions on. Knowing what you want people to say drives your actions. Decide say, five things you would like your people to say about you. The person I was advising on this subject decided that the things he would like people to say about him is that he is fair, responsive (responds to every email or request within 24 hours), caring (places people as the priority), expert (in his field) and has fun (smiles, friendly and enjoys lighter moments in a hectic setting).

2. Impressions to classify: humans make snap judgements on very little information – we do so in order to classify, or make sense of, our experiences. So, in terms of their new clan leader, people will classify you very quickly (“looks good” versus “waste of space” or words to that effect). Don’t leave the classification to chance or by being careless. Be deliberate in your first actions. Early in my career at IBM I remember one leader (more a tribal leader than clan leader) returning to Australia from an overseas assignment. Tony spent the first month devoted to one task – meeting all his managers individually. Intrigued by this use of his time I asked him why he chose to make this his focus. He told me, “Andrew, there’s no decisions I need to make right now – the leaders are competent and doing their job. What I most need to do is establish a relationship with all my managers.”

3. Sense of belonging: to give people a sense of belonging you need to know them – to respect their identity. Part of the reason that a clan is up to about 150 is that it’s the size group in which everyone can know each other. You need to quickly know everyone’s name, their role and where they fit in. In time you should know a little about each person – what makes them the individual they are. An effective way to achieve this is to set up a program of “skip interviews” where you sit down individually with the people at the level below your direct reports. Get to know them, and them you. (You’ll obviously spend much more time with your direct reports.)

4. Rituals: belonging is partly achieved through rituals, and can’t be achieved without rituals. Rituals might include department meetings, briefings and annual celebrations and social occasions. As well as the bonding value, these events also provide you with appropriate ways to be visible and to use your power and position constructively. Ancestral leaders hosted regular celebrations.

5. Establish standards: as clan leader, you establish the standards, which includes what you are not prepared to compromise on. While you are friendly and give people a safe place to work, you need to be treated seriously and that there are consequences if people deviate from your standards. The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon who researched the Yanomamo Indians in Venezuela reported on one leader who impressed Chagnon as an easy-going and effective clan leader. But on one occasion a young man did not comply with a request from the leader. The leader spoke clearly, but not rudely, to the young man, “If you don’t do what I ask you will be banished from this village”. The young man quickly complied.

6. Lift emotional energy: Humans are primarily emotional, versus rational, beings. You significantly impact people’s emotion and when your people are in a positive emotional state they deliver better outcomes. One way to give people a positive burst of emotion is to surprise them with gratitude when they do things well. In business reviews and on the grapevine you will frequently hear about someone having done something well (or enquire of the manager briefing you, “Which one of your team is behind this good work?”). Then surprise that person by calling them, emailing, texting or wandering past their desk to thank them. Imagine the burst of energy they have that day, and what they report in at home that night.

Andrew O’Keeffe


Andrew O’Keeffe is the Principal of Hardwired Humans which assists business leaders design and implement people strategies based on human instincts.

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