Switching to managing managers after managing individual contributors is a difficult transition that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in the engineering leadership literature.
The hardest part is that the expectations for a director are often unclear, and usually no one prepares you for doing the daily activities that come with the promotion.
So let us shed some light on the topic of managing managers through stories and tips from a veteran leader.
Mike Seavers, VP of Online Development at Epic Games shares his experience both as a person who struggled with managing managers and as an executive leader who helped other leaders make this transition. This post is written based on an interview from episode 56 of the Level-up Engineering podcast hosted by Karolina Toth.
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I define a director as a leader who’s managing managers rather than individual contributors. I’ve seen different definitions of the director role, especially in software engineering, but this is the meaning I am referring to when I say “director.” When it comes to comparing leading vs managing, almost everything is different.
It’s a challenging transition for many leaders, including myself. There is a high failure rate for people transitioning into managing managers. People either love the role or they hate it, but it’s generally difficult.
Frontline engineering managers attend daily stand-ups, they do code reviews, and they often even write code.
When you start managing other managers, you have your direct reports doing the tasks that you used to do as a frontline manager. If you continue doing these, the best case scenario is that you disempower your frontline managers, or worse, you’ll cause disruptions. A director showing up to daily stand-ups may be fine in some cases, but doing it regularly can be jarring to individual contributors.
Taking on a director role makes you a part of the leadership in a broader context. Directors need to manage a lot of relationships, drive change, and align people in the company over different levels and context.
Success for a director goes beyond just getting results. A director’s primary team isn’t always the team they’re leading, but the company’s leadership team.
There are new responsibilities in a director role, such as the following:
I took on my first director role as part of a job change, so I switched companies to get there.
My motivations weren’t right. My focus wasn’t to enable others or to become the best leader I could be. I wanted the bigger title, I wanted to feel important, and I was chasing my ego. Unfortunately, I think this is more common than people like to admit.
I also wanted to gain more control to be able to fix everything around me that I thought should be better. Most people don’t realize this, but when you take on a broader leadership role, you often end up with less control.
I first became a director and started managing managers about 17 years ago. My team consisted of five sub-teams, about 50 people combined, and I had six or seven managers reporting to me. We were going through an Agile transformation.
I spent all my time focusing internally, working with my team. I attended stand-ups, we were teaching Scrum and we were introducing new tooling to manage the Agile process. We changed our release method and other internal processes.
I was proud of what we managed to accomplish, but when it came time for performance reviews, I received the worst review of my career. My peers and everyone around me outside my team said in their feedback that they had no relationship with me. They didn’t know what I was doing, they just saw me making changes in engineering without involving the leaders of the project management team, the release management team, or the QA team.
Basically, I kept doing what I was doing as a manager when I should have turned more of my focus outside the team. I didn’t build relationships outwardly, so my engineering teams were adopting changes but the rest of the organization had no idea what we were doing. Failing to align my team with the rest of the company was one of the worst failures in my career.
One of the senior directors I worked with did me the favor of giving me the hard feedback that I needed to hear. He told me that my motivations were wrong, that I hadn’t built relationships with my peers and so on.
I asked what he recommended I do next. He said that I should talk to all of my peers and the other leaders that I worked with and ask for their honest feedback about me as a leader.
I did this over a couple of weeks. It was two of the hardest weeks in my career, because I had to listen to all the reasons why my colleagues thought I wasn’t doing a good job. This was a transformative experience.
I looked for patterns and themes in all feedback I received, and I poured myself into reading books, and taking classes to improve my leadership skills. I didn’t turn it around overnight, but I tried out new tools and learned new skills to become an effective director.
At the time, I didn’t have the skills necessary for managing managers. This was a failed transition for me. It took me about three years to figure out what a successful director looks like.
A director needs strong management fundamentals. This includes hiring, firing, performance management, mentoring, coaching, and all the mechanics necessary to get the best out of your people.
When you’re managing managers, you need to be able to teach them these fundamentals, and hold them accountable if they fail to utilize them. I recommend all leaders of any level to always continue to learn and polish their management skills.
When you’re managing managers, you need to delegate. If you try to do your frontline managers’ job for them, you disempower them and they’re going to get frustrated. The art of delegation is about giving space for your reports to learn for themselves.
When you first enter the director role, you’re probably used to being the accountable manager, and it’s scary to give your reports the room to fail. But your job as a director is to empower the managers reporting to you and to coach them when they make mistakes. This takes a lot of practice.
As a leader, you always communicate whether you realize it or not. Everything you say, every question you ask in your meetings, every action that your colleagues observe is communication. This is true of every manager, but the responsibility grows in higher positions.
You lead by example, and you can do a lot of damage if you’re unaware of this. So you have to learn about the art of communication in one-on-one settings, in groups, and other forms as well.
This becomes most visible when employees get frustrated. For example, the company makes a decision to take away free sodas. If you as a leader express your frustration in front of your team or in public forums, you’re showing poor leadership.
Be aware of your role as a leader and aim to be the voice of reason. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get frustrated or angry. Just deal with those emotions in private or with your manager until you can get to the place where you can make a stand for your case.
Feedback is one of your most powerful tools a director has. We live in a world of servant leadership, but we mustn’t forget that we’re also responsible for giving hard feedback when it’s necessary.
I recommend reading Kim Scott’s Radical Candor on the topic. Humans are prone to be afraid of giving hard feedback, because we want to be nice. Leaders don’t have the luxury of avoiding these situations.
Just a couple weeks ago, I had to give feedback to a leader on my team about exhibiting a behavior that was damaging to that person’s reputation and to the organization as well. It was hard feedback that this person didn’t want to hear and I didn’t enjoy delivering.
It’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure that you’re setting the right culture in the company. When you observe these behaviors in a leadership position, you can’t be shy about addressing them.
People often fail to recognize that managing managers is a different job, and they keep doing their old job. You need to understand your responsibilities and make that switch. There’s a book called The First 90 Days covering this topic, and it’s a great read.
This was my main mistake when I first became a director. I needed to figure out the expectations for the new role, and put my efforts into fulfilling them.
You can only manage an organization if you can manage yourself. When you’re promoted to director, you have to deal with new stakeholders, build new relationships, and you’re responsible for a lot more people. Your plate is full, and you can run yourself ragged if you don’t have strong time management.
At one time, a friend of mine was promoted to director, and I became one of his direct reports. We talked a lot while he went through this transition, and we’ve talked more since.
He was running around a lot, sitting in meetings, and he couldn’t make time for his direct reports or his broader team. He always looked stressed out and worried.
Eventually, I sent him a long email detailing how I was worried about him and the impact he may have on the organization if he didn’t improve his time management.
We had other conversations about this topic, and he managed to turn the situation around. He realized that he had control over his calendar. It’s hard to decline meetings that you want to be present for, but a director running around with his hair on fire doesn’t exude confidence towards anyone in the company.
People tend to draw strange lines in their mind about who counts as company leadership and who doesn’t. Some people draw the line at their manager. Others only consider the executive team as leadership.
I consider directors a part of the company leadership. Directors are expected to understand what the company is doing and help connect their team to that mission and vision. Directors not viewing themselves as part of the company leadership can lead to issues with communication and alignment.
I often see leaders waiting for all the conditions to fall into place to create success, rather than creating the conditions for success. Directors are supposed to write proposals, create the vision, present it, and align people. When leaders are sitting around waiting, the best case scenario is that they give up their power to make good things happen.
One of your primary roles as a leader is to shape the world around you, and this may not be obvious to everyone. This means that you can’t expect others to solve your problems for you.
I look for a willingness to make things happen in candidates for director roles, and if it isn’t there, I try to instill it.
This director was one of my direct reports. For the first several weeks of us working together I always asked this person in our one-on-one meetings about how everything was going. Each time, this person told me that the team was misaligned, some of the managers weren’t doing something right, or that the team had messed up.
These answers gave me the sense that the team was unorganized and failed to deliver. When I asked this person whose responsibility it was to fix these, they took an outward perspective, as if they weren’t responsible for the team.
We had to have some coaching conversations where I explained to them that their team is their responsibility. We expect directors to shape their organization, to get it into a healthy state, and to coach their managers when necessary. The leader has to solve these problems.
When I first became a director, I had no idea that I was failing.
This happened because I didn’t build relationships. I didn’t have a mentor, a coach, nor a personal “board of directors” that I could talk to about my challenges. I didn’t seek feedback.
The best tip I can give to a new director is to seek feedback. It’s always useful, and especially when you’re making the transition to managing managers.
Sit down with all the stakeholders who are connected to you and your role, such as your peers, your team, and the leadership team, and ask them questions like the ones listed below.
Don’t take no for an answer if they say they don’t have any feedback or it’s all positive. Tell everyone to give you at least one piece of constructive criticism before you end the conversation.
If you’re seeking out feedback and you have a good mentor to help you navigate, you should be able to avoid any blind spots that may cause you to fail. Just make sure to adjust your behavior based on the feedback you receive.
When someone tells me that they want to become a director, I always ask them why.
People often say that they want to be a part of the decision making. That’s a good reason, but the best motivation is looking to unlock more potential through the multiplicative power of leadership in my opinion.
Chasing a bigger title, a bigger paycheck, and more power may not be bad things, but these can lead to a negative mindset and cause problems.
Examine how the candidate is running their current team. A high performing team delivering results is a good sign. A manager helping to solve problems not only inside their team but around it as well is even better.
Directors typically solve problems throughout the company, so they can’t be afraid to pick up issues that need attention even if it’s beyond their area of responsibility.
Many companies make the mistake of thrusting people into a director role without preparation. The transition should be managed carefully because failure can set back a career significantly. A slow transition may not always be possible, but when you hear that someone is considering moving to a director role, you can give that person a taste of it.
Find a more junior manager they can mentor informally. You can go further, expand their scope and give them another manager to manage, rather than pushing them into a director role with a much broader scope and context. This is effective with candidates who have high potential and who have the fundamentals in place.
I’ll never forget the day when we realized at Riot Games that we had a lot of directors struggling with their transition to managing managers. The leadership team and myself had a conversation about what we could do about that.
Executive leadership has to be aware that managing managers is a challenge. You can gather data with your HR team to see if there are problems. Look at director promotions and examine the performance before and after. This hurts companies in hypergrowth the most.
The role of a director is often ill-defined, and it differs between organizations. Make sure that your directors know what rules they need to play by; otherwise, you set them up for failure.
We developed a framework of expectations that included the seven most important things that signal great engineering leadership. We did this for each level from frontline manager to CTO. Then we all sat down with our direct reports and explained the framework to them.
You can provide different kinds of guidance to new directors.
Find mentors for the people making this transition and give them the opportunity to take training. You may hire executive coaches to support them.
Provide a safe exit for people who make the transition only to realize that it was premature or that they don’t want to do this type of work. It’s a bad idea to have people only continue on this path because they have no option to change course without significant damage to their career. Keeping leaders in roles where they don’t want to be is a recipe for failure.
Managing managers is a difficult job, and the people who don’t make the transition well can still be great contributors in other roles. A senior manager role may be a good fit for people who made the transition prematurely. Others may realize that engineering leadership isn’t for them, and they would rather take a senior IC position on the engineering career ladder.
I’ll keep this story sketchy because too many details may give away who I’m talking about.
We put this person in charge of a particular function. Our early one-on-one meetings showed me that his struggles came from not viewing himself as a part of the company’s leadership. He was waiting for the company to define his function.
I asked him to put together a plan for the mission, the vision, and the success criteria. We kept hitting the roadblock that this person was expecting the company to tell him what to do.
The breakthrough came in one of our conversations.
I said, “Put yourself in the shoes of the CEO of our company with thousands of employees. You’re eating your Wheaties on a Tuesday morning, and with all the pressure of running a company on your mind, do you think you would suddenly realize that you need to define this particular function of the company when you’ve hired someone to lead it for you?”
I continued, “Alternatively, you can define the problem yourself, create the vision, come up with the success criteria, and present it to the executive leadership. That way, they may have feedback for you.”
I saw the lightbulb go on when he understood that he had become a part of the company leadership. That was when he realized that it’s his job to define success for his team and to shape the world around him.
Switching to a director position should be a positive career transition that the person is excited about. For some people, the role won’t be what they expected. That’s a sign to start digging, and see what the problem is.
It bothers some new directors that they have a hard time determining their own impact. Others aren’t happy with the amount of meetings, and don’t like the daily activities that come with managing managers. These can be warning signs.
Look for people with their hair on fire. Signs may be seeing a director rushed in their communication and not exuding confidence. Pull them aside and ask them how they’re doing.
Do skip level meetings with the reports of new directors and gather feedback about them. Ask questions like,
You’re looking for signs that the director is neither too engaged nor disengaged. You don’t want them to micromanage their team, but they need to be available when the team needs them.
It’s important to stay technical and to understand what’s happening on your team. It’s easy to spend too much time on the tech when you’re going from engineer to manager or from manager to director and not spending enough time on your leadership work. Consider keeping up with the extra tech work.
You move further away from the problems, so despite your technical knowledge, you often won’t be the best person to make technical decisions anymore. Let your senior ICs and your managers make those decisions.
You have to find the balance. Stay just close enough to know what’s happening, but not so close that you make every decision yourself.
All these difficulties may make it sound like managing managers is a terrible job, but it can be very rewarding.
If you want to be a better leader, you have to become a better person. The journey to become a director and keep climbing the leadership career ladder is about self-discovery. You learn a lot about yourself, master leadership soft skills and learn about organizations as well.
When you make the transition from manager to director successfully and you get to see your impact on your teams, it’s incredible. It’s worth the journey, if you’re up for it. Just don’t expect it to be linear or easy.
Mike is currently at Epic Games as VP of Online Development. He’s leading development on the Epic Games Store and core technologies like infrastructure, accounts, and the data platform among other areas.
He loves video games and cycling. He’s been using the latter to relax, even if only virtually in recent times. He also loves leadership, and one of his current side projects is coaching other leaders.
He has recently started working on a book about making the transition from manager to director, and he was a guest on our podcast before discussing the topic of building self-managed teams.
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About the author:
Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.