middle managers are translators

One Crucial Skill the Best Middle Managers Master

Great Middle Managers are Effective Translators

Middle managers lead in a precarious situation. They don’t set the strategic priorities, but they’re accountable for getting it done—often without the influence to ensure they have all the resources they need.

And, every day, their teams look to them for support, which they may or may not able to give. There’s one vital middle management skill that most middle managers struggle to learn.

Why Communication is So Tricky for Middle Managers

You know your boss cares deeply about customers, employees, and doing the right thing for your business. And, you’ve built a passionate team of customer advocates, who want their work to matter.

And yet here you are, precariously squashed in the middle of all this passion and good intentions. You’re doing the best you can to empathize with, and support, both the senior team and the frontline.

The cacophony of misunderstanding and misinterpretation can be deafening.

  • “Why don’t THEY understand why this is so important?”
  • “Why would she do THAT if she really cared about employees?”
  • “How can THEY be so out of touch with reality?”
  • “These executives DON’T HAVE A CLUE about how annoyed our customers are about this decision.”
  • “This is JUST ANOTHER SIGN that the frontline is disengaged.”

As a middle manager, chances are no one put “translator” on your job description—and yet, if you can master this skill, you will be on your way to increasing performance, influence, and engagement.

How to Be a Better Translator

If you want to be a better translator, start with a focus on understanding and translating these five topics:

1. Translate industry dynamics into pragmatic straight talk.

Pay close attention to what is happening in the world around you and what it means to your industry, your company, and your team. Work to understand the competition and what they’re up to. Build genuine strategic partnerships with your suppliers and know what matters to them—and how this crazy time impacts them as well.

When you have the chance, ask informed questions of your senior team to gain additional perspective and deeper understanding.

The more you understand the strategic context, the better you can explain the “why” behind the “what.” All of this knowledge makes it easier to keep your team informed in easy-to-digest sound-bites that leave them both optimistic and about the future, and grounded in what they can do next to help.

2. Translate EBITDA into “What I need from ya.”

You’ve attended the kick-offs, heard the vision, and have a good sense of strategic priorities. That’s all great context to help your team feel like they’re part of something important. What matters next is that your team understands the “So what?” for them. Work to translate strategy into tangible behaviors.

Around here, our mission is to “rid the world of cynical dehumanizing leadership,” which is inspiring, but not all that useful unless we help every member of our team understand how they contribute to that mission by the work they do every single day, from how we engage with clients, the curriculum we choose to build, who we work with, and how to prioritize our time.

3. Translate executive urgency into tangible action.

As a middle manager, one of your most important jobs is to communicate a sense of urgency without creating unproductive stress. When an executive stumbles across something stupid happening on your team, it’s natural for them to worry about what else is wrong. Being a great translator means buffering some of that stress, helping everyone keep perspective, and (1) doing what must be done as efficiently as possible, and (2) keeping anyone who needs to know informed.

4. Translate employee angst into reasonable requests.

You’ve worked hard to translate executive strategies into tangible actions, connected what-to-why, and buffered your team from unnecessary stress and angst. Now it’s time to focus on translating in the other direction.

Your people have anxieties and real needs and are looking to you to be their advocate. One of the best strategies to translate people’s concerns is to frame them in terms of the strategic objectives that matter most and attach a specific, do-able request.

That way, you avoid looking as if you’re complaining or shuttling along an issue you can’t address. Instead, you’re coming with commitment and concern for what matters most and a specific way to help everyone get there. A clear, actionable request with strategic benefits will help you translate your people’s concerns in a way that gets results.

5. Translate deep questions into dialogue.

Great middle managers are the masters of great dialogue.

Once you’ve worked to translate concerns in both directions, take responsibility, and lead, you can take it a level further and work to foster meaningful dialogue.

To create dialogue, you position yourself as a facilitator for well-intentioned parties who are committed to success and have good ideas that will benefit everyone to hear and discuss. This sounds like, “There’s an opportunity here for us to build something together—or to find a deeper solution. That’s why I suggested we meet.”

Sometimes there’s no substitute for people hearing from one another and talking together. Save this skill for those moments where nothing less will do.

Your Turn

Mastering a middle manager’s translation skills will help you deepen your reputation as a strategic and capable leader. What communication and translation skills would you add?

We’d love to hear from you: leave us a comment and share your best suggestion to help middle managers navigate these communication challenges.

Communication Help for Middle Managers


  1. Industry dynamics into pragmatic straight talk.
  2. EBITDA to “What I need from ya.”
  3. Executive urgency to tangible actions.
  4. Employee angst into reasonable requests.
  5. Deep questions into dialogue.

See Also:

Communicating With Executives When Your World Is On Fire

Harvard Business Review: Why Being a Middle Manager is So Exhausting

How to Get More Creative in Your Remote Team Communication

How to Get More Creative In Your Remote Team Communication

Want to be more creative in your remote team communication? Start here.

If you’re like most managers we talk with, you face the perfect trifecta of remote team communication challenges.

First, you’ve got A LOT to communicate.  With so much change, keeping your team informed can feel like a full-time job.

Second, your employee’s heads and hearts are full. The fast pivot, the emotional strain, and concerns for the future all create distractions that compete with your messaging.

Third,  Zoom fatigue is real. People are tired of all the meetings and are looking for a way to mix it up.

So how do you find more creative ways to improve your remote team communication?

Communicate What’s Important Five Times, Five Different Ways

Let’s start here.  If a message is really important, communicating once on a Zoom call is not enough. To get past the distraction, you want to communicate five times, five different ways.

When we work with managers to build their strategic communication plans, we always start by asking, “What do you want your people to think, feel or do as a result of this communication?”

For example, suppose a key message for your team right now is, “Work-life synergy matters. We need to find a sustainable pace that keeps us all emotionally and physically healthy.”

Note: We chose this example because it’s emerging as a theme in almost every organization we work with (including our own company.)

Message: Work-life synergy is important. I care about you as a person. I don’t want you to work all the time.

What I want my team to think: That I’m serious about this and will put actions behind my words. I am a role model for this.

What I want them to feel: Valued and supported. I want them to feel they can exhale.

What I want them to do:  Talk to me about finding a workable schedule based on their unique needs. Schedule some white space on their calendar between meetings so they have time to think. Find a routine that gives them the renewal they need.

Five-by-Five Communication Plan 

  1. Virtual town hall
  2. Video message
  3. Discuss each person’s approach in their one-on-one.
  4. Yard signs (yes, one of our clients actually did this.)
  5. Care packages sent to each employee’s home with a note from you reinforcing key messages.

How to Build a 5x5 Communication Plan
















Help Your Team Find More Creative Solutions: Five By Five, in Five With Five

We’ve been doing a quick exercise in our live-online leadership training to help managers get more creative with their communications. We call it  5×5 with 5 in 5. We break the group into breakout rooms of five people and invite them to spend five minutes to come up with as many “realistic and creative” ways to communicate with their teams.

A spokesperson for each group then shares their ideas, and the other groups cross off anything another group said.  As facilitators, we type all the ideas into the chat box so everyone has a visual record of the ideas.

The group with the most original ideas “wins.” Of course, everyone wins, because they have new approaches to get creative in their remote team communication. And have more strategies to mix into their 5×5 communication plan.

Just a Few of the Fun and Creative Ideas That Emerged From This Process

  1. Play “telephone.” Start with a key message you need everyone to pay attention to. Tell one person on your team and then ask that person to call one other person, and then that person to call the next down, etc. Challenge them to deliver the message with no distortion. People will pay extra attention because they don’t want to be the person who screws up the challenge. Then have the final person share the message they received in the next staff meeting. This “check for understanding” gives you another way to reinforce the message.
  2. Send a personal note to their home (or a thank you note to their significant other, or kids.)
  3. Use topic-based asynchronous communication channels for both work-related and human interest conversations (one team was really digging their “healthy recipe” channel.)
  4. Leverage your virtual backdrop to visually reinforce key messages.
  5. Turn your message into a song or skit.
  6. Use Cameo app to send a personalized message from a celebrity.
  7. Send the team a tee-shirt about the key priority.
  8. Do a drive-by parade with a sign on the car.
  9. Use Gifs.
  10. Produce internal podcasts.
  11. Conduct weekly town-halls.
  12. Recognize strategic behaviors.
  13. Host friendly competitions.
  14. Make individual phone calls.
  15. Write Sharpie messages on your arm to show on Zoom calls, conveying “This is how important it is: I’ve practically tattooed it!”
  16. Have another leader share/reinforce the message.
  17. Use Peer-to-peer messaging.
  18. Give it a theme—brand it.
  19. Throw a virtual kick-off party about the message.
  20. _______________________ What would you add?

Your turn.

We would love to hear your thoughts. What are your best practices for more creative remote team communication?

the smartest way to ensure your leadership message sticks

The Smartest Way to Ensure Your Leadership Message Sticks

Taking your management team out of the field for a leadership offsite or kick-off meeting can be an incredible way to provide clarity around your leadership message, to get everyone focused on what matters most, and to encourage the sharing of best practices.

AND, let’s face it. These meetings are expensive. By the time you add in the time off the job, travel, conference space, AV, and break-time cookies, you’re right to question ROI.

How do you ensure your leadership message sticks? How do you ensure your team is taking your message back to actually DO something?

The Easiest Trap to Fall Into When Sharing Your Leadership Message

Mary’s Story

Mary had brought her managers together to discuss their 2019 priorities along with a bit of Winning Well management training. She kicked off the meeting with a highly-motivating and inspirational message.

She clearly articulated the MIT (Most Important Thing) strategic priorities they had aligned on during their executive session; worked hard to explain the “why” behind what matters most; and, most importantly, translated the priorities into what that meant the managers needed to DO differently.

I was applauding on the inside.

But as I looked around the room, I noticed that not a single person had taken notes. They were all just smiling back at her politely.

I had a hunch that no one had truly picked up what she was putting down.

So as she handed me the mic to begin our training, I did a quick check for understanding. “So who can tell me one of the three most important priorities Mary talked about?”


It wasn’t because they weren’t listening. They were.

It wasn’t because they didn’t care. They do.

But it was taking them a minute to catch up.

What Mary so needed was a recap and a feedback loop. A check for understanding.

So I asked Mary to recap the three priorities, which she did slowly and deliberately.

And then we asked again.

This time every manager was able to share all three priorities. They nailed it.

An hour into the training, I went there again. “What were the three priorities Mary shared?”

They nailed it AGAIN. Progress.

One subtle shift.

Getting the team to share back what they heard. It only took two minutes and made all the difference.

Your Story

It’s so easy to assume your team will get it the first time. After all, they’re smart. They care. And if you do say so yourself (it’s okay, it’s probably true), you’ve crafted a really careful and powerful leadership message.

But the truth is, they’re just catching up.

You’ve been sitting in the planning meetings.  You understand the nuance and the backstory. You wordsmithed the talk points.

But for them, here it comes … all at once … and it’s likely they’re processing #1 and what it means to them, while looking at the escalation blowing up their phone AND thinking about the fact that they only had one slice of lunchmeat for little Bobby’s lunch that morning and wondering if he’s going to notice.

I know it’s frustrating (been there). But try to slow down.  Ask what they heard. Repeat if necessary with a warm smile. Ask again.

And as a close,  ask each person in the room to send you a quick email about what they will be doing differently as a result of your message.

Your turn.

What’s your favorite way of ensuring your leadership message sticks?

You may also enjoy: How to Communicate Remarkably Clear Leadership Expectations

one easy way to encourage your team

One Easy Way to Encourage Your Team

What is one best practice you would recommend to encourage your team?

One Great Way to Encourage Your Team

I took my bike to the cycling shop for a quick repair before heading out for a beautiful Saturday afternoon ride in Breckenridge. Recognizing me from the last time, the manager asked where I’d been riding so far this summer. I shared, “Oh you know Swan Mountain Road toward Keystone? It’s gorgeous, but yikes, that’s quite a hill.”

He laughed. “Karin, it’s okay to call a mountain a mountain. And that ride is definitely a mountain. If you can do that, you can ride just about anything around here.”

I thanked him for the encouragement and headed out on my ride. About 10 minutes in I had a choice…to head straight up the steep incline or take an easier route. “Hmmm…” I thought. “This is a mountain. But I do mountains.” And up I went.

It’s Okay to Call a Mountain a Mountain

When we do keynotes for companies, we always like to talk to a few of the Senior leaders as part of the preparation. Consistently one of the insights they share is, “Our team’s job is so hard! We’re asking them to do a great deal with limited resources, in a rapidly changing environment.” Or, “They’re working so hard, this is one of the toughest times our industry has ever seen.” Or “I’m so proud of this team. What we’ve asked them to do is nearly impossible, and somehow they’re making it happen.”

So then we’ll ask, “Have you told them you know how hard it is?”

Most frequent answer, “Oh, no! I don’t want to discourage them.” Or, “If I admit it’s hard, then they may think it’s okay to not accomplish it.”

And then we’ll inquire: “Is it okay if I let them know you know? Here’s why _______.”

And then from the stage we share, “We talked with ‘John’ in preparing for our time together. And here’s what we learned. Your job is hard! You have to do ___ and ____ without ___ and ___ in the context of _____.”

And a sense of relief falls over the room. There are always big smiles and sometimes applause. Not for us, but because “John” gets it.

Don’t be afraid to call a mountain a mountain.

If your team is facing a steep climb, recognize it. And then remind them of the mountains they’ve scaled before and why you know they’ll be successful.