When an organization grows beyond the size where all employees report to the business founders, middle management leadership becomes relevant.
A middle manager is anyone who has to get work done with the help of other people. These people play a pivotal role in translating the strategy of an organization into result-oriented actions to be taken by the people under their influence.
They are the engine of the business, the cogs that make things work, the glue that keeps companies together. Especially as remote and hybrid work takes over — and the distance between employees increases — middle managers are more important than ever. The most effective ones are in possession of humane, sophisticated communications skills and the knack to mediate and find common grounds between actors at different levels in the organization.
This type of role is challenging, however, because it requires being both a proactive leader to direct reports and an engaged follower to the top management, all at the same time. Current ideas of leadership and training fail to capture this complex double act. For example, executive development programs focus on teaching leadership skills so managers can influence direct reports, largely ignoring the development of their upward influence skills. But it is directly through these double upward and downward influence activities that connecting leaders can shrink hierarchical distance and bring multiple levels of an organization together.
How to be a Successful Middle Manager
A successful middle manager understands the challenges of leading associate employees and reporting to executives but sees both as opportunities to learn, connect and grow. Follow these steps to be more successful in your role:
- Understand your job responsibilities.
- Communicate and connect with your senior-level manager.
- Align your values with your company’s mission.
- Ask for feedback from your team.
- Take leadership training.
- Be empathetic and build relationships.
How Can Companies Cultivate Connecting Leaders
There are three measures organizations and executives need to take to cultivate connecting leaders. Without them, these leaders may feel like doing and saying what’s necessary is just too perilous.
Get company buy-in to support risk-taking.
In order to recognize the sophisticated efforts of middle managers, you have to start highlighting the above four behaviors as key performance indicators. This can be achieved through both executive buy-in and a common understanding of these practices company-wide.
Executives buy-in is important because much of what connecting leaders do is risky. It would be naïve and idealistic to expect people to ramp up their performance in these areas without providing support. Remember: some of these behaviors are riskier than others. For example, speaking up for others requires exposing yourself to the top of the organization, as well as possibly disappointing the bottom. So, executives need to be prepared to aid connecting leaders by fostering and environment of psychological safety.
Once there is buy in from the top, both the communications and human resources departments need to work together to update company-wide language — for example, on balanced scorecards, hiring competencies lists, and contracts to reflect the importance of connecting behaviors. The balanced scorecards for executive performance should also be tweaked to accommodate the importance of psychological safety and their co-responsibility to ensure connections are truly enabled.
Create development programs centered on both leadership and followership.
First, development programs should be dedicated to unpacking, explaining, and training the abilities associated to each of the four practices. These should teach not just leadership skills (i.e. how to influence those lower in the hierarchy) but also on followership skills (i.e. how to influence those higher in the hierarchy).
In particular, the word “followership” is associated with images of passivity. Development programs can aim squarely at making followership an active action. To do this, you might design workshops that include managers from different levels reimagining and defining what it means to be active followers, sharing and reflecting on the difficulties of speaking up, influencing from below, and linking hierarchical levels. When I have run these types of sessions in organization, I have seen transformation in the room and a sense of pride in being skilled at upward influencing. For connecting leaders, learning about and normalizing active, thoughtful followership is as important as learning about leadership.
Invest in better emotional support.
Connecting leaders, given their strategic position, are often pulled in two directions, with emotional and cognitive costs. So especially during times of change, it is important to offer this population extra support, like coaching and spaces for safe conversations and sharing. This is crucial for their success, but is often undervalued by companies who put a greater share of their coaching budget to top executives rather than to middle managers.
Why middle management leaders matters
Middle managers are critical, as they have the ability to influence the performance of an organization by the leverage they have.
“A manager can do his “own” job, his individual work, and do it well, but that does not constitute his output. If the manager has a group of people reporting to him or a circle of people influenced by him, the manager’s output must be measured by the output created by the output of his or her associates”
While the work results of an individual are determined by the performance in executing a given task, the results of a manager are determined by the results of the all the people working under the manager’s supervision and guidance.
This can’t be emphasized strongly enough, particularly for those managers who tend to say things like, “the task will be done better and quicker if I do it myself”.
“The output of the manager is the result achieved by a group either under his or her supervision or under his or her influence”
Middle management effectiveness is so critical for any organization because of its leverage effect. Effective middle managers can have a positive impact on motivation, morale and performance of the people under their supervision, while ineffective middle managers not only deliver poor results, but also contribute to valuable human potential being wasted.
You may think that if people would just learn how to delegate a bit better, that should be enough. Indeed, delegation is an important skill for any manager, but just being a good delegator won’t make you an effective middle manager.
Middle manager’s personality, mindset, skills, behavior and style; Objectives and key results agreed with the middle manager; Group member’s characteristics, skills and behavior; and Organizational context all make up for an effective middle manager.