Ah, middle managers! They are the workhorse and heartbeat of every organization. They are the artery of every team and are responsible for much of any operation's success and failures. Middle managers are sandwiched between the executive team and the general workforce, oftentimes tasked with the most grueling jobs and expected to appease the top while pacifying and inspiring the bottom. Good middle management is an indispensable part of any company´s success, yet often, these hardworking and tireless individuals go unrecognized and painfully under-appreciated. Today´s post is about supporting this fundamental role by empowering Middle managers to become beacons of transformation while creating sustainable leadership practices that generate wins for all.
What are Middle Managers?
Middle management is one of the most challenging and rewarding rites of passage for any leader on a path to the C-Suite. Across the board, this position is generally reserved for more seasoned employees and can occupy titles ranging from Sr. Manager to VP. These managers have direct reports and have not reached the highly-coveted senior leadership positions yet.
In my experience, I have always held a special place for middle managers, and I feel they are some of the most hard-working and dynamic leaders in any organization. They are arduously tasked with translating the high-level vision into day-to-day tactical plans. They drive execution and must have a firm understanding of the workforce in order to fill the gaps and cultivate talent. Oftentimes, middle managers are viewed as impervious gatekeepers and can serve as proponents of growth or an abhorred barrier to many career paths. It´s always wise to remember that employees do not quit companies; they quit bad managers.
The Middle is in a crisis.
Over the past two years, we’ve seen an incredible amount of burnout and disengagement amongst this group. Middle managers have been feeling the heat with a toxic combination of fewer resources and increased responsibilities. Pair this with a dose of unclear expectations, and you have yourself the perfect recipe for disaster. I´m not just speaking from my coaching experience with many middle managers–the proof is also in the data. According to a 2022 article by Fast Company, middle managers are facing higher levels of burnout than ever before. So what can organizational leaders do to ensure that the important middle is not left in ashes?
Paint a clear picture. Define how an employee can clearly impact the organization. Provide a straightforward picture of the roadmap that shows what success looks like and what is needed to get there. This is the #1 pain point I hear from those in the middle–especially amid so much uncertainty. Provide clarity on the outcomes you are seeking and give them some understanding of the “why” behind the strategy. This will help middle managers communicate directives and execute accordingly. I get it; perhaps you even don’t have the clarity yourself. But the least that you can do is to try to keep the channels of communication open. This brings me to my second recommendation.
Communicate often. Poor and infrequent communication–especially with regard to expectations and changes in the roadmap– is at the root of so much unnecessary workplace stress and grief. Again, if you do not have all the answers, at least keep them in the loop as much as possible and provide guidance on what and where to focus while you gain your own clarity.
Be the coach. Prioritize listening sessions with middle managers in order to build trust. Engaging in listening tours can be vital to your alignment and consequent success. If your middle managers are unsure or unclear, fight the urge to lean into frustration and shame tactics, as this will only further alienate your team. Instead, create a space for brainstorming or suggest examples to get their creative juices flowing. Engage in creative, collaborative, and solution-orientated activities.
Provide them room to operate. With so many competing priorities, your job is to focus on removing obstacles for your middle managers so they can achieve company OKRs with fewer constraints. Allow them some flexibility with how they manage their time. This is especially important if you are seeking to retain seasoned talent that is also childrearing. At the end of the day, who cares about clocking in and out as long as the work gets done and clients are taken care of? Believe me, your middle managers will appreciate that flexibility instead of imposing office times that do not serve anyone.
Invest in them. One of the reasons middle talent is leaving in mass is because they feel unappreciated and stagnant. These are the days of frozen budgets where promotions are being denied, left and right. With these restraints, you can still implement measures for your middle managers to feel engaged. Executive Coaching can be a great tool to signal their high value and the company´s view of their potential. Professional coaching is also proven to be an excellent release valve to alleviate their day-to-day challenges, thus, increasing job satisfaction.
You can implement one or all of these effective retention tools in order to maintain the backbone of your operation. Remember, great middle managers are worth their weight in gold and allow leadership teams to keep driving strategy while they execute on all of the incredible plans. As the cost of business continues to soar and turnover and re-training are at an all-time high, taking the time to care for the middle has never been more important.
If you are interested in exploring how I can help your organization or yourself retain and develop your middle managers please fill out the form here. Or you can follow me via LinkedIn.