Karin’s Leadership Articles

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.

See also: One Critical Skill Middle Managers Must Master

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.

See Also: Leadership Skills: 6 Leadership Competencies You Can’t Lead Without

Your turn.

What’s your best advice for someone looking to become a better manager?

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

21 Comments

  1. Jon Mertz

    Your points highlighted are essential ones, Karin. There is an old adage that applies as well: Plan your work and then work your plan. I believe that leaders taking on an expanded role need to think about what they want to do, gain insights from the environment and people around them, and then define what needs to be done. And, then, work it. Modify it as new things are learned. Move activities forward to produce results. Thanks! Jon

    Reply
  2. letsgrowleaders

    Thanks, Jon. Terrific additions. So important to have a solid, yet fluid plan.

    Reply
  3. Ali Anani (@alianani15)

    Karin- the plants photos are reflective of what you intended to say. The young plant looks like the well-grown one. As we grow, we don’t lose shape; it is our needs that change. We need more and varying nutrients in quantity and quality.
    The nutrients! Your eloquent post suggest quite few of them. These include among others: invest in yourself, learn more, This shall not only help the “grown” employee; it shall also help him/her meet the needs of others by removing or easing road blocks, suggesting new ideas, listening and learning and so on.
    Dressing like a new senior shall not be effective caveat unless is also “dressed” with the attributes of a senior. We lead humans, and that “shape” should be kept.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Ali, Beautiful and eloquent insights as always. Thank you. Love your expansion…we do lead humans….

      Reply
  4. Steve Borek

    Demonstrate humility and vulnerability.

    Get an ICF certified coach.
    Read books on leadership.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Steve, Agreed… a coach can really help in these times of transition. And yes, never stop reading books on leadership.

      Reply
  5. David Tumbarello

    Your fourth bullet, about growing leaders, gets me thinking about a question for leaders out there: What is the scope of your leadership development plan? If your scope is narrow, why? If your scope is wide, why?
    I attended an organized leadership discussion circle at church this past Sunday. During “check out” I shared the most valuable thing I got out of the discussion was the ground rules: “Use I-statement, tell stories, listen….” And I grew by participating with individuals who respected those fundamental rules. Even though I taught those ground rules in various classes through the years, a leader will always benefit by seeking out structured (and unstructured) opportunities to practice what is preached.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      David that discussion circle sounds awesome. I vote for a broad leadership development plan…it inspires more possibility.

      Reply
  6. bill holston

    Wow, great thoughts. My transition was from volunteer do Director. I have spent the last two years working on the last step in particular. It’s why this is a daily stop for me. Thank you Ali for the reminder to ‘invest in myself’.’

    As I transitioned, the most important thing for me to remember was Patience, which is not a strong characteristic for me. I needed to be bold, have a vision, but I needed to wait, learn and listen. This created the space for me to earn not just respect but also to model patience. Because I needed that same patience extended to me.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Bill, thanks for sharing your story. I’m always working on patience.

      Reply
  7. bill holston

    oh, and I voted!

    Reply
    • Ali Anani (@alianani15)

      Bill- your comment is so motivating. Yes, persistence is greater when coupled with patience. I love this addition. Helen Keller showed us how the biggest transition in her life came abruptly when flowing water in her hand with the simultaneity of writing water on her other palm gave her the biggest abrupt transition in her life. Bill, your comment is genuine because you base it on your personal experiences.

      Reply
      • bill holston

        thanks Ali, I always enjoy your very eloquently expressed thoughts.

        Reply
  8. Bill Benoist

    These are great points, Karin

    I started in technology back when the PC was just beginning to appear in the workplace. I started entry level, moved up to front line supervisor, manager, director and ultimately into a VP position. Although I have a solid foundation, I’m far from being an expert in the field anymore. I rely on my staff for that. With that reliance comes trust. Sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen managers become promoted who could not let go.

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      Bill, A perfect example. I, too, have seen leaders who will not let go… not only is that behavior disempowering, it’s exhausting (for everyone).

      Reply
  9. LaRae Quy

    I loved each and every one of your points, Karin. There was one sentence that really struck me as significant for a leader in transition when it comes to communication: “Explain the strategy as you would have wanted it explained to you yesterday.” Since they’ve been there, done that, a leader in transition knows exactly what to say and how to say it…if they just remember where they sat the day before…

    And I voted…. 🙂

    Reply
    • Karin Hurt

      LaRae, thanks so much. It’s interesting, I too think that’s one of the most important points… and yet, I’ve seen many think they have to now “act” a new part and they take on a corporate speak instead of explaining it in the way they know folks can hear.

      Reply
  10. Alli Polin

    Nodding along the whole way through, Karin! Great, to the point, advice. I think the one that resonated with me the most is to respond but don’t react. When I was a corporate VP, I would often have newer managers come into my office as if their hair was on fire but when we talked about it, they knew what to do but couldn’t see it through all the smoke 😉

    Reply
  11. PM Hut (@pmhut)

    Hi Karen,

    I really like the “Be visible and Invisible” part – unfortunately, not so many so called leaders out there respect this rule. I’ve seen employees discussing their issues with upper management directly rather than discuss them with their own manager – this affects the authority of the manager, and in my opinion, it says something about the quality of people out there.

    Reply
  12. Toni Warren

    Thank you for the insight Karin. I am going to work on becoming a “Roadblock Buster” for my team.

    Reply

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