Stepping Up to Senior Management – Your New Kettle Of Fish

If you’d like to watch me go through this on video, just click here.  6 mins with captions.

Senior Management is not just more management.  It’s a new kettle of fish.  I’ll go through:

  • The change in the nature of the work
  • What the job actually is
  • Action To Take

Senior Management

First – what are we talking about here?  The key thing is manager of managers.  Or, managers of multiple teams, who each have their own leadership.  These roles can be called various things, some of the ones from my clients are:

  • Senior Manager
  • Manager (where their Team Leaders play a fully accountable managerial role)
  • Associate Director (common in higher education)
  • General Manager (smaller organisations where the higher role is the CEO)

Either way, it’s now multiple teams, specialists, or a combination of.  Here’s a diagram:

or to make it a bit more modern:

The Change in the Nature of the Work

The work of senior management is different. 

The classic mistake is to simply go harder at the previous level.  Think about managing various house constructions.  We can perhaps handle more than one…but we hit a point at which the volume is just too high (and if you’ve ever been on the end of a build with a long list of tasks and disappointment not yet resolved… this is what’s happened).  At this point, it goes from managing houses to having a system or method of work that will create a steady throughput of finished houses.  That’s now senior management.

More specifically, these differences are:

Problem to Problem Factory

For most, this is a metaphor, but you are now in charge of a ‘factory’ that is designed in a way to allow multiple problems to be solved, in the right order, to ultimately create a series of predictable ‘things’ that your customers want.  You might have got promoted because you are awesome at solving unique problems.  Now you only have one problem…and that’s to make a whole show that can solve many.  And not just by you.

And this is not just about what’s inside your ‘factory’.  It’s external too.  There are connections all around you that make your show part of a network – internal and external suppliers are an obvious one.  While you might not be directly accountable for what they provide…you are very accountable for addressing issues in that network and making it work well for everyone.

One Year to Next Year

The timespan has gotten longer.  Earlier level roles are about hitting targets and staying within limits.  Beat the budget, that sort of thing.  Now you are setting up a system that will allow everyone in it to meet and the beat budget, and at the same time…working with an eye to how the show could change over the next 18-24 months to make it, well, better!  Two things in your mind at once – today and tomorrow. 

Talent Pool

You are now in a role that chooses who will be put into formal leadership roles as you will select (and ‘deselect’) managers.  This means that you’re involved in talent pool discussions, as your views on who might ‘step up’ and who is a solid performer are relevant beyond your area too.  It’s no longer just about performance…your view of potential just got a lot more real.

The Job of Senior Management

Let’s now talk about what the senior manager role is uniquely accountable for.  (Remember, ‘accountable for’ does not mean ‘do it alone’.)  It goes like this:

Improve Internally and Externally. 

By improving, we are talking about how the whole factory runs.  There is still involvement in the incremental/continuous stuff, but more from the angle of ensuring the conditions and methods are in place so this happens naturally.  The unique improvements that come from the senior management level involve a significant change, or decision not to.

Internal improvements are about the consideration of new methods.  Attendance at trade shows and reading are required to stay abreast of what’s going on in the field, scanning for possibilities to create significantly better ways to do things.  And remember, the decision not to follow a latest fad might the best one you make!

By external improvements, we are referring to changes that add significantly more value to your existing customer groups.  Not at the level of game changers, but more than just tweaking methods.  Once again, this requires connection and understanding of the external world (and no, it’s not enough to wait for marketing to tell you!)

Change for the Future

Improvements referred to above are going to require changes to how the show runs…as are strategic changes that are decided upon at a wider level.   A change in the core function of your area for strategic reasons is going to require serious consideration and planning, both on the technical and the human side, and at the same time, we need to keep delivering for our customers today.  This is where senior management earns it’s keep, by holding both in mind at once so new futures are moved toward without falling into the ravine.

Related to that future are:

Input into Future Value

As I went through in a previous article on innovation, they are not real until they are embedded in the actual work systems.  So, it’s useful to have someone who actually knows about those work systems involved.  That’s you!

Here’s the trick – it’s all too easy to see your role as protector of the work system.  To get caught up in seeing stopping change as the only way you create value.  But it’s just one way.  You’re also there to know what’s possible, and what would be involved in getting there.  And this is a political act – the ability to be influential in good decisions being made.   Yep…part of the gig, don’t worry, you can learn about how to do this here.

Run Some Pilots

The connection between innovative idea and them becoming real is through pilot projects.  Small things that allow us to collect information on the factors that make an innovation successful.  Some of these might have to be run out of your area, so your job is once again to make sure the requirements of today are being met, while at the same time, run pilots into potential new stuff so smart decisions can be made. 

These pilots might not just be innovations for customers either.  You might trial some new methods in just one area.  New technology for example.  Setting things up so we deliver both today and learn about tomorrow…that’s now what you do.

Side Note on Modern Ways of Working

A quick side note – this article is working with the traditional managerial accountable hierarchy – the org design most of us work in (which is entirely appropriate for many organisations BTW).   These principles also apply equally to other organisational forms, the only difference is in where the responsibility for the work lies. 

An organisation run by a group of partners still needs to, from time-to-time, step back and look at how the whole show is working.  If you look closely at the thinking around scaling up agile practices to enterprise level (such as SAFe and S@S) you’ll see the same considerations of working methods across full systems.  Either way, the work is still the same, what changes is who makes the call and how they do it.

And…in a managerial accountable hierarchy, while the senior manager role might be the one held accountable for the system-wide decisions…they would be foolish to make them without getting the input of all those who will be affected.

Actions To Take

Here are some actions you can take to fully get into the senior manager role.

1. Model Your Factory

This means creating a deep understanding about how your ‘factory’ works.  This does not mean knowing how to do everyone’s role (the equivalent of knowing how each machine works) but you do need to know what each role does.   How it fits into the picture, what it relies on, what relies on it.  Your show creates value for groups of people – you job is to understand how that happens. Suppliers, funders, beneficiaries – they are all part of your show too.

Good old process diagrams are useful here – the act of drawing one, with your people, gets everyone literally onto the same page.  A bit of context goes a long way, and you want everyone seeing how the value is created.

If you don’t see the whole show you run the risk of going back to solving problem after problem like you used to do well.  Your job is now to know which problem to solve first…and why.

2. Control Information

We could call this management info, the point is to see this like a thermostat – by having information about how the show is actually working, adjustments can be made that keep things running right.  And…also provide information that allows us to consider the future.

Information at the whole show level needs to now be a ratio.  Remember, you’re now accountable for overall efficiency, both this year and next year.

It’s not just about avoiding running out of fuel, you also need to make the car more fuel efficient.

What’s the key ratio?  The top bit needs some sort of ‘throughput’.  How much your show produces whatever it does per day, week, month, whatever.  Regardless of what industry you are in, your show produces something.  People served, actual widgets, workshops, phone calls…. a few things.  If you’re lucky, you might even have profit per day to measure.  But the point is to see that something is produced.

The bottom bit of the ratio is the cost.  The resources needed to run the show.  So we have some ratios that look like this…

…and your job is to make that ratio better!  Figure out what your ratios are and try a few options until you find the ones that matter.

To make these ratios move in the right direction, we need to ensure we…

3. Avoid Local Optimums

A local optimum is something that makes life better for a part of the system…at the detriment of the whole system.  This is why we have size and bag limits in fishing – the local optimum for each fisher (to maximise their catch) will see the fishery fail.  What we want are System Optimums or Global Optimums. 

In your work system, each team or specialist will focus on their own output in the absence of anything else.  Your job is to keep the whole system visible and in focus for all involved so they can make decisions that help everyone.  Producing at maximum pace is not helpful if the next step in the process is already overwhelmed.   

And the human element is huge here – opportunities for everyone in the show to know each other and realise they are all in it together.  A bit of kumbaya doesn’t hurt, and the way I usually bring this in is to talk about the work itself so no one gets too scared about actually being a person!

4. Learn About Your People

Remember the Talent Pool?  For you to be a useful contributor to the organisational talent pool discussion, you need to learn about your people.  Therefore I set 250 as an absolute maximum number of people under the one senior manager, and I prefer much lower numbers.  Lower again in industries requiring high technical knowledge or strong human connection.

The starting point is to be able to at least recognise everyone in your area, then to build this to getting to know them.  This happens through conversations with your managers and other leaders about what they are seeing in other people, through getting out there and observing, and through arranging meetings, projects and initiatives where you can watch people in action and perhaps even work with them directly.

And remember, it’s not just about superstars.  Solid, reliable performers who don’t mind the work, they are well-liked, and who will keep showing up… are gold.  Your job is to understand the full pool of talent in your area, both for them, and for the organisation. This article will give you a starting point.

5. The Middle System

This is the overlooked part of senior management…, and the one that can make a huge difference.  The Middle System happens when the senior managers in an organisation make the decision that they are going to work as the one group to effectively make the whole enterprise run well.  In other words, to let go of the Divisional separation, the silos, even the personal differences, and simply listen to each other and make the show run.

This is hard – senior managers are torn between the needs of their Executive and the needs of their people…and keeping these two ends happy leaves very little time to look sideways.  The irony is…it’s in the looking sideways that salvation can appear, as many of the issues that are bubbling up come from the cross-functional nature of organisations.

The work here is to make time to visit with other senior managers and organise.  To share a vision of working together and enlist others in the cause.  Waiting for an Executive decree won’t work – the whole point is for this not to be necessary.  Does this sound like a lot?  It is.  Which is why it doesn’t happen as often as it could. 

A functioning middle system allows an organisation to change more organically toward new futures.  It protects the viability and sustainability of the whole enterprise.  The lack of such a system is one of the key reasons many organisations struggle – the constant battle for priorities and the feeling of overload is a symptom of this.  You can learn more about the Middle System here.

Bringing it Home

The work of senior management is a whole new kettle of fish from frontline management and/or specialist work.  It’s not done as well as often as we’d like – which is why ‘middle management’ has received such a bad rap over the last couple of decades…and why many Executives spend their days in this space.

Putting out fire after fire will let you go home feeling tired and perhaps valuable… but it’s not the real job.  You’re there to make the fires not happen in the first place.

Get it right, however, and you can create a satisfying, dynamic and integrated area where people can feel valuable as they not only deliver for customers today, but are involved in creating what they will be doing in the future too.

And that’s worth it.

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