Practical Skills to Be a Better Middle Manager
“Sam” was beaming with excitement as he told me about his promotion. He was in the throes of a transition from supervisor to middle manager, He’ll now lead leaders.
“But it’s scary,” he added. “I know I have to handle this whole thing differently. I was very close to my team. We talked about everything and shared common interests. Now as a middle manager, I must distance myself, not share too much, not get too close.”
Sam continued with the list of all her other behaviors that MUST change in his new role as a middle manager. I heard none of what must stay the same, as his scope increased. Now I was scared.
And then there’s “Jenny”. I gave Jenny an assignment because of her strategic mind and strong leadership. The role was enormous and there was much to learn. We met to discuss her performance agreement and goals, and I asked, “So what’s your strategy?” Silence. “What are you doing to build your team?” Crickets.
She’d been doing a great job learning and keeping things moving, that she wasn’t yet leveraging her best gifts, the ability to transform. Jenny came back a week later with the rock star plan I knew she had inside her.
How to Scale Well as You Become a Middle Manager
Transitions in scope and scale are tricky. Continue to do ALL of what worked at the last level, and you will surely fail. On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of abandoning your best characteristics and approaches as you become a middle manager. I’ve seen too many leaders lose themselves in the transitioning process.
1. Translate the Landscape
You’ve got a new view, share it, up, down, and sideways. Some of the puzzle is coming together for you in a new way. Capture that feeling and share it with your team. Explain the strategy as you would have wanted it explained to you yesterday. It works upwards and sideways as well. Share your perspective about how the latest processes and policies are playing out in the field. Combine your old knowledge and new insights into an enlightened and integrated perspective– play this well, and you’ll be brilliant.
2. Be Visible and Invisible
As a leader at a new level, your best bet is high visibility. Be approachable. But don’t get in the way. Nothing will annoy your new team more than having your door so wide open, that everyone jumps over them to get to you. Respect your team and their authority. Unless something is up that needs a skip-level intervention, tread lightly before taking action. Serve your direct report team well. Help them lead their teams more effectively by working through, not around them.
3. Listen, Learn, and Be Strategic
Go on a listening tour and learn all you can, but don’t react. You’ll be tempted to jump in and fix stuff because you know how to. As a middle manager, that’s not your job anymore. Delegate the immediate fixing, and then take it up a notch. Look for patterns. Consider the strategic implications and root causes. Build cross-functional teams to tackle the challenges to make a greater impact.
4. Build Better Leaders
Your most important work as a leader of leaders is helping them grow. The tragic truth is that many middle managers spend less time developing their leaders as they increase in scope. Reverse that trend. I have increased the percentage of time I devote to developing leaders as I have moved up the ladder. Nothing will drive results faster than strong leadership at every level.
5. Respond, But Never React
The fires burn more fierce the higher you go. The issues on your desk are real, and often urgent. Great middle managers pause, listen, gather facts, and respond. Sure, that response must often be quick, but frantic reaction slows down helpful behavior. Learn to keep your cool, early in the game.
6. Become a Roadblock Buster
Spend time making things easier for your team. Find out where they’re stuck, and offer to remove roadblocks. Two cautions here. As a middle manager, don’t jump in without asking. Too much help will make your team feel like you don’t trust them, or look like they’re running to their boss. Second, teach while you’re busting down those barriers. And for Pete’s sake be sure YOU’RE not the roadblock. Respond quickly with needed approvals and work to diminish unnecessary time wasters and bureaucracy.
7.Invest in Your Development
Many middle managers spend less time on their own development as they become middle managers. Big mistake. As your scope and scale increase, so does your responsibility to lead well. Get a coach. Have a collection of mentors. Read constantly.
What’s your best advice for someone looking to become a better manager?