Leadership and Management October 28, 2019

How to lead successfully from the middle

5 challenges middle managers have to overcome

Tom has been informed by his senior management that they plan to acquire a former competitor in order to expand their market share. As sales director, it will be Tom’s task to integrate the ex-competitor’s sales operations into those of the larger organisation. Tom knows that it won’t be an easy assignment to mesh the two different business operations and that senior management hasn’t considered this in detail. However, the biggest challenge will be cultural. How can he successfully integrate the new people into his current sales team? And a further headache: If the early post-acquisition numbers aren’t remarkable, Tom might be blamed.

Working as a mid-level manager can be tough. According to research, middle managers are likely to struggle more and be less satisfied than any other levels of management. So how do middle managers stay upbeat and love their job? What challenges do they face and how do they cope with them?

1. Being torn in different directions

One big challenge is to avoid playing the middle man between competing interests or priorities that exist throughout the organisation. Instead, leading from the middle is about meeting the demands of the senior management while providing resources and support to direct reports. Therefore, middle managers have to take on different roles, being able to alternate their interaction styles with higher and lower power colleagues. This switch between interacting with different power levels can result in feeling trapped between “different stakeholder groups with conflicting demands”.

How to overcome this challenge:
It’s helpful to see the different roles of a middle manager as integrated and not as opposed, as part of your professional identity. You can do this by linking your responsibilities to the broader organisational mission, by reframing your self-identity from “sometimes a boss and sometimes a direct report” to thinking “being a middle manager is important for the organisation’s performance”. Remember that identities are developed through communication and interpersonal relations. How you present yourself as a middle manager is how you are perceived. Speak of wins and accomplishments and be proud of your contribution to your organisation’s success.

2. Speaking truth to power

As a mid-level manager, you have little authority when it comes to setting an organisation’s strategy or deciding on a change of course. Nonetheless, you’re expected to motivate both yourself and your team. You’re also held responsible for the end results. There might be days when you feel like the proverbial piggy in the middle.

How to overcome this challenge:
Invest time in understanding your leaders, their objectives, and their thought and decision-making process. Be determined to have a voice. Prepare your points before meetings and conferences, so you’re ready to stand up for your team, sell your ideas, and ultimately have a say in the overall vision and strategy. This way you’ll earn your senior management’s respect and the right to “speak truth to power.” Also consider your communication and influencing skills: are they strong enough or should you develop them further through leadership training?

3. Thinking and acting systemically

Your management board has priorities. Your team members have urgent questions and specific requests. Peers and internal work groups bring extra projects your way. One meeting follows the other. You get pulled in all different directions and find yourself taking on more work and feeling overwhelmed. How can you navigate this system without working yourself into the ground?

How to overcome this challenge:
Focus on the bigger picture, see patterns in relationships, processes and behaviours and be ready to deal with uncertainties and trade-offs. Set clear priorities for yourself and your team. Have self-control and don’t let everybody’s issues make you lose focus. As middle manager you have to learn to work through other people, to help them cope with their task (not taking it on board yourself) and to influence the system. You also need to give up the desire to please everyone. If you try to do so, you risk losing your impact.

4. Your team’s success is your success

In middle management, you might get less praise for your work than when you were in charge of completing your own projects. Now you’re dealing with a series of projects in very different areas. And a lot of your work time is spent in meetings facilitating exchange, feedback and coaching. It doesn’t always feel like you’ve accomplished something on your own or put in a solid day’s work.

How to overcome this challenge:
Being a manager is about getting your team to deliver excellent results and feeling proud about their successes. So, when your team gets positive feedback, be satisfied, because your leadership qualities and efforts paved the way for that success. You also play an essential role in maintaining and strengthening their motivation and further development, which are both core for your organisation’s success.

5. Developing the leadership skills you need

It’s important to realise that the skills which made you successful in your first-level managerial role are less critical at this stage of middle management. As a middle manager, you need to take on a wide range of different responsibilities, so you need to develop competencies such as leading change, driving performance, coaching employees, managing resistance, decision making and so on.

How to overcome this challenge:
Organisations don’t always prepare their first-level managers for their transition into middle management. So it might be good to be proactive about your own development. Think of the skills and competencies you might still be missing. Ask for leadership or senior management training with a focus on behavioural change to improve your day-to-day management. Another option is to have one-to-one coaching sessions with a business coach experienced in your industry or ask your direct manager to play an active role, gently increasing your responsibility with lots of feedback on what works well and where to improve.

https://hbr.org/2017/03/why-being-a-middle-manager-is-so-exhausting
https://hbr.org/2013/05/reinventing-middle-management

https://www.krauthammer.com/en/open-programmes

 

By Susanne Barth, Publications Manager at Krauthammer

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