Blog • 25. October 2022

Differences between managing specialists vs managing managers: what will change?

What critical success factors are important for succeeding as a first-line manager, which ones as a middle manager,  and how much does the focus change  when moving from  one role to another?

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What critical success factors are important for succeeding as a first-line manager, which ones as a middle manager,  and how much does the focus change  when moving from  one role to another?

Traditionally, leadership is discussed more generally (at least in Estonia), and  less attention is paid to  different levels of leadership:  which  critical success factors are important for succeeding as a  first-level manager, which ones as a middle manager,   and how much the focus changes when moving from  one role to another?

Intuitively, everyone agrees that yes, there are differences but what kind? Can we formulate them more precisely? It is possible that one of the  reasons why the differences are not discussed so often is  the  lack of large enterprises  in Estonia: our small and medium-sized companies have a thin layer of management and  there is no acute need to address the topic.  Large companies have  their  own career programs, but their content is rarely public and does not find wider coverage.

An important day comes for the team leader of specialists, when the  boss calls to his office, praises for the  work and proposes  a promotion.   In the new role, you need to start managing team leaders instead of specialists. Like in the army: the division commander becomes a  platoon commander.  Everything is  great at first, but inevitably at  some point you  have to ask yourself the  question: what  is going to be different now?  Below, I’ve briefly summarized conversations with executives who have successfully completed this career turnaround.   We asked them what is the difference  between managing specialists versus managing managers,  or whether  there are any differences at all.

The large number of respondents confirmed that by becoming a manager of  managers,  several focuses will change.  First of all,  as a manager of managers,  one  is engaged purely in management.  As  a team leader of specialists,  you inevitably had to do  specialist work from time  to time.  Secondly, specialists need to be managed mainly  through  tasks (this is certainly a big generalization) and managers through goals.  Of course,  in the case of specialists,  the  level of detail  depends on individual differences (one is aware of  a long-term goal and  already knows what to do next) and also on the competence of specialists level (young specialist versus experienced professional).  Thirdly,  the  task of the  team leader of specialists is definitely to create a good working atmosphere in the team. For managers, the working atmosphere  is  also important, but also  clarity of goals and expectations, freedom, space to  act and the resource base to achieve goals.

As a new thing, the  manager of  managers has to deal with the topic of leadership potential: who to  promote from specialists in the  future to become a team leader (i.e. his own direct subordinate). On  a few occasions,  I have  met former specialists who have been promoted directly to  the position of leader and who have  not learned to value being a leader,  i.e.  managerial duties.   They tend to choose  people with more successful technical achievements  than  others as team leaders and  do not know how to  see and value leadership potential.

When managing managers, coaching becomes a key skill.  In addition, it  is necessary to provide  subordinates with job responsibilities related to management and leadership.  Often,  someone who has not received the appropriate  leadership training is  promoted to  the position of team leader of specialists, and  his success depends on the   manager’s willingness, ability  and patience to supervise him (incl. in addition to instructing,  also assess/measure (managerial) performance and give feedback). Fortunately, acquiring the  skills of a coach in Estonia is a  popular topic and there are  quite a few opportunities to improve yourself  in  this field.

In their work,  managers   also begin to deal  with issues of strategy, and  they need to  look at the  big picture: how his field relates to other areas of  the company and the overall picture.   You can no longer shove the  blanket solely towards you.  Considering the typical profile of  Estonian organizations, the  head of managers  may already be  a member of the company’s management group.  In this case, strategic management is  a critical part of the  job description.  Although different models and tools of  strategic planning and management have been developed over time, the  effectiveness of a  manager in this area depends a lot  on his or  her strategic thinking capabilities, which  according to today’s researchers of  occupational personality, the function is  from  certain basic personality traits and cognitive style.   The topic of strategic  thinking has  been of  great interest to  myself personally  in recent years, and I would definitely like to touch on it further in the context  of the selection of top managers.

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