Mastering the Middle and Both Sides of Leadership

Impress your boss and inspire your team by “mastering the middle.”

Do you manage a team? And do you also report to someone higher up the corporate ladder? Then you, like so many workers, are in “the middle.” There are skills and strategies you need to master to make the most of your position.

Successful middle management is demanding and exacting. Middle managers are required to both take and give direction. They need to nurture their team and protect their boss’s interests. It’s their job to explain front-line needs to senior leaders. And it’s also up to them to translate the firm’s vision for staff on the shop floor.

This article is filled with inspiring and helpful advice, not to mention strategic tips about how to meet the unique challenges of managing in the middle.

Serving up means trusting your boss’s vision.

Juanita is a middle manager, and she’s about to make a huge professional mistake.

One of the best members of Juanita’s team has just quit, and Juanita’s boss has decided not to hire a replacement. Now Juanita’s staff feel overworked. She has even been taking on some of the workload herself, and she’s proud of being a great team leader. What’s more, Juanita has her colleagues’ best interests at heart. That’s why she’s going to demand that her boss replace the departed employee.

But what’s wrong with Juanita’s approach? Well, she isn’t serving up.

The key message here is: Serving up means trusting your boss’s vision.

Juanita’s boss has decided a leaner team can deliver the same results. But Juanita hasn’t shown faith in this decision. She hasn’t consolidated her team’s workload or encouraged colleagues to develop new workflows. In short, she’s dismissed the logic of her boss’s decision and failed to streamline the team.

Juanita thinks she’s acting in her team’s best interest. But what’s happening is this: she’s missing an opportunity to give her staff new challenges and more responsibilities. Instead of encouraging their professional development, she’s giving in to their complaints.

It isn’t her job to relay the team’s frustration to the bosses. Her job is to translate the management’s vision to the team. If you’re in the middle, it’s not up to you to strategize. But it is up to you to put strategy into action.

Serving up – trusting the boss’s vision – means accepting decisions with enthusiasm and conviction. And this allows you to perform your role with conviction, too.

Many middle managers are loath to serve up because they confuse serving up with sucking up. But there’s a huge difference. Sucking up is manipulative. A suck-up is a ‘yes-man’ – or a ‘yes-woman’ – who only ever says what they think people want to hear. Why do they do it? Usually to further their own agenda.

Serving up, on the other hand, has no agenda. Someone who serves up is a team player. This person supports the mission and objectives of the firm.

For you as a middle manager, this can occasionally entail supporting decisions you don’t fully understand or agree with. But that support doesn’t need to be uncritical or unquestioning.

Serving your peers sets you, and your firm, up for success.

Ever seen a tennis pro play in a championship match? Players like Serena Williams and Roger Federer have killer serves. But to win the point, they can’t play the same serve every time. If they want to keep opponents on their toes, they need to mix things up.

The same applies to managing from the middle. It’s not enough to serve up by supporting your immediate manager. You need to serve out and across, too. This means you need to serve your peers in middle management.

The key message here is: Serving your peers sets you, and your firm, up for success.

One of the biggest problems in the corporate world is often described as “silofication.” This is what happens when departments operate independently, failing to communicate and cooperate with each other. It’s almost liked each department is in a separate, sealed-off silo. Each part of the company is only looking out for its own interests; no one is working for the good of the firm.

As a middle manager, you can help address this problem. How? By serving out to your colleagues.

This serving-out approach is directly opposed to the silo mindset. In silos, the mentality is, “We look out for our own.” When you serve out, you ask entirely different questions: How can I help you? What can I give you? How can I make your job easier?

But hang on. Isn’t there a risk? Won’t other departments simply take advantage of you? Well, maybe not.

Here’s how the serving-out mindset can break down the silo mentality. Let’s say you run the sales department. And every single day you complain about your peers in Design. It’s like their only aim is to make life difficult for you and your team!

But try this. Instead of complaining, reach out and serve out. Don’t gripe to the head of design; ask her what your team can do for her.

By being open to collaboration, you may be able to adjust your team’s workflows in a way that hugely benefits designers. And once you’ve made the adjustment, the other side will probably reciprocate. Even if their manager doesn’t immediately ask what she can do for you, you’ve still made the first step: you’ve opened a line of communication.

You have also shown that your department doesn’t have a silo mentality. And this can serve as a foundation for a collaborative corporate culture, where everyone serves out and across – and everyone receives service in turn.

Divide your energy equally between your boss and your team.

Charles is a middle manager who’s made himself invaluable to his boss. He accepts her strategic decisions and implements them with conviction.

His team, on the other hand, are far from exceptional. They complete their tasks, sure. But, unlike Charles, they don’t fully support the company’s mission. Charles can’t be blamed for their mediocre performance. Or can he?

The truth is, even though Charles excels at serving up, if his team isn’t performing, well, then he’s only doing half his job.

The key message is: Divide your energy equally between your boss and your team.

Charles believes in his boss and his firm. But his team members don’t, and that frustrates him. What’s stopping them from coming on board? Well, Charles has never shown the team that he believes in them. When you believe in something, you pour your time and energy into it. But Charles’s time and energy have only ever flowed upward. He’s never coached his team.

Why not? Well, he’s always thought that coaching was patronizing. He’s hired competent people. He respects them enough to get out of their way and let them do their jobs.

What Charles has not realized is that effective coaching is not patronizing – it can be inspiring and empowering.

To coach your team effectively, take a leaf from a sports coach’s playbook. Start with drills and build them into your team’s daily work. For example, have your colleagues spend some time each day learning that new accounting software package, or role-playing sales pitches.

And remember, a football coach never just sets drills and walks away. He puts in his own time and energy, trying to help players get better at these drills. You can do the same for your team.

Also, think about something football coaches never do. They never spend all their time with the weakest team member. In fact, most of their effort is directed at their stars. You can coach in a similar way. Pour your energy into your best performers, and your team will soon see that your coaching is a reward – not punishment for work done poorly.

Your team deserves excellent coaching from you. And you deserve the same from your boss. When you talk to your manager, be direct and honest. Explain what you do for your team, and then tell your boss that you’d like similar treatment.

You can embrace change even when you don’t fully understand it.

We all know change is unavoidable, but it can still be challenging to deal with. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a big shift, like moving to a new city or starting a new career, or just a small adjustment – even making the switch from coffee to tea can be hard.

It’s no different in the corporate world, which is influenced by the constant flux outside of the office. Things like technology, demographics, and market forces never stop reshaping our businesses.

Corporations excel when they can adapt to these changes. Managers excel when they can adjust to new ways of working.

The advice here is simple: accept change. This will set you up for professional success. But putting this simple advice into practice can be a little more complicated.

The key message in here is: You can embrace change even when you don’t fully understand it.

Change in the workplace might not always strike you as positive. It could mean more work, unexpected challenges, disrupted relationships. You may feel the need to question the new direction. Don’t.

Transparency around decision making is great, but if you don’t understand an executive decision, assume that senior managers have more insights and information than you do. Trust their judgment and serve up.

When you’re in the middle, questions of “what” and “why” don’t really concern you. It’s not your role to decide on the direction of change.

But you do have a different, equally important function: you implement change. You’re the person who works out how change happens. That doesn’t mean you should never question proposed adjustments; it just means the purpose of your inquiries should never be to stop them. Instead, look to understand them.

Coach your team through change by demonstrating leadership, rather than doubt. Let’s say your boss has decided that your team needs to transition to a new, state-of-the-art sales software. That means a lot more work for your team. It will take time and effort to adapt to the new system, and people may grumble about it.

But you shouldn’t be one of the grumblers. Trust the leadership’s decision. Your firm didn’t pivot to this new software just to create more work for you. The bosses made an investment, and they are expecting a return in the form of more sales, greater accuracy, less time wasted.

Whatever they want to see, make that happen. The recipe for success is simple: give your team the tools and coaching they need to adapt.

Middle managers are crucial to bridging the knowledge gap.

Knowledge is power – but only if you put that knowledge into practice!

The knowledge gap, which is the distance between what workers know and what they do, is a huge problem for the modern workplace.

Here’s how it usually plays out. Senior management settles on a new, more efficient system. Everyone gets training. People apply their new knowledge for a week or two, but no one holds them to it, and they soon slip back into old habits. That’s bad news for everyone – whether they’re at the top, in the middle, or working on the front-lines.

But there’s good news, too: if you’re in the middle, there’s lots you can do to address this problem.

The key message here is: Middle managers are crucial to bridging the knowledge gap.

There are two reasons why your team might not be putting new knowledge into practice. The first is lack of will. The second is lack of skill. Both can be coached out, but the techniques are different.

If your team shows a lack of will, it means that they can do it – they just don’t have the drive. Maybe they feel the old system gives better results; maybe they don’t want to spend their time mastering the new system. Either way, it’s unacceptable.

So how do you deal with something like this? First, set the standard. On a pro football team, even the star player shows up to training and runs drills. Why? If he doesn’t, he knows he’s off the team. His coach has made that clear. You can set the same standards for your team. If they don’t step up and deliver, there’s no place for them. Your clear expectations can inspire better work.

Now, what if your team lacks skill, not will? Should you slow the pace? Reallocate some tasks? No. Slackening the pace doesn’t incentivize anybody to skill up. Keep the pace and the workload high, but also do more coaching – far more.

Cultivate both skill and will in your team. Next time the bosses propose an innovation, your team will have the drive and the capability to put their plan into action.

Effective time management is all about priorities.

Have you ever heard of “middle child syndrome?” Middle children are often people pleasers because they’ve always had to mediate between elder and younger siblings.

When you work in the middle, you might feel the same way. You’re pulled in different directions, and you want to please everyone. Bosses, clients, heads of other departments, your own team – there’s so much to do, and so little time!

So how do you get on top of your tasks and keep everyone satisfied? By changing your mindset.

Here’s the key message: Effective time management is all about priorities.

To fulfill the demands of the role, middle managers need to prioritize – ruthlessly. So how do you know which tasks should come at the top of your to-do list and which can be dealt with later? The key is to distinguish the urgent from the important.

An important task is proactive. It is focused on eliminating problems before they appear. Important tasks target long-term development; they are designed to bring about positive change.

An urgent task, on the other hand, is reactive. Its focus is to deal with problems that require attention right now – things like talking to an irate client or smoothing an administrative hiccup. Completing an urgent task doesn’t develop you or grow the firm.

It’s easy for your to-do list to fill up with urgent tasks. But completing them often means that you neglect the important things.

So, now you have the important and the urgent mapped out. But there’s more you should place on your list: the non-negotiable things, or the “must-dos.”

Must-dos are tasks like coaching, giving feedback, and checking in with management. When you’re busy, it’s easy to neglect them – to postpone that one-on-one, to cancel that coaching session. But that would be a mistake. These tasks are at the heart of your job. Your professional success depends on how well you fulfill them.

Luckily, most must-dos are recurring. So, block out time for all of them in your schedule. Yes, even for that five-minute phone call to check in on a client!

With all these demands, how do you avoid feeling overstretched? The author suggests there are three things you need to do: Learn to work your to-dos around your must-dos. Tackle the important tasks first. And start saying no to the urgent ones.

You’ll soon be working with efficiency and clarity – and delivering great results.

Prize your team members for the contribution they make.

Which of your team members deserves the most of your loyalty? The most senior? The most skilled? The most loyal? The one who drives the most sales, nets the most deals, wins the most pitches?

The answer is: none of them. Your loyalty should lie with whoever is making the greatest contribution to the team right now. Last quarter’s results, last year’s numbers – they don’t come into the equation.

The key message here is: Prize your team members for the contribution they make.

Ideally, everyone in your team will be contributing consistently. How do you achieve this? It’s all about accountability. Make it clear that you expect all team members to do their best and deliver results. Then follow through.

All too often, middle managers say that contribution is important but don’t act as though it is. They keep rookies on task but steer clear of the veterans. After all, who wants to micromanage? But not holding people accountable is doing the team a disservice.

It doesn’t matter how long somebody has been with the firm. You may think, “Bill’s given 20 years to the company.” But that’s just wrong. Bill hasn’t given anything. This company has paid Bill for 20 years of service. If he’s not contributing, he doesn’t deserve to stay on the team.

Remember, it’s all about effort. If your top salesperson cuts corners and comes in late, the results she delivers are irrelevant. She’s not contributing to the best of her ability.

Then again, you might be dealing with the opposite problem. A team member gives their all, goes above and beyond, and still doesn’t deliver results. You’ll be tempted to keep them on, out of loyalty. But your loyalty is misplaced. You’re not serving them – or the team – by keeping that person in a role to which they are clearly unsuited. If, despite your coaching, they’re not up to the task, redeploy them.

Remember, when you’re serving up, your loyalty is both with the company and with your team. Protecting under-performers, refusing to coach veterans, keeping people around because they’ve given years to the firm – all of these are signs of disloyalty to your firm. You’re creating and maintaining a culture where no one is incentivized to give their all.

The middle is a powerful place to be – if you play your cards right.

Middle management has a bad reputation. In the corporate world, it’s often seen as a refuge for pencil pushers, bureaucrats, and people who don’t hold any power or influence.

Of course, many do fit this stereotype. But – news flash! – some of the most powerful people in business are middle managers. After all, what’s the definition of a middle manager? It’s a professional who both reports higher up the chain and manages further down the chain. That definition fits some of business’s most influential VPs, CFOs, and COOs.

If you’ve mastered the art of serving up and coaching down, then you’re more than just a middle manager. You’re someone who leads from the middle.

The key message here is: The middle is a powerful place to be – if you play your cards right.

Power isn’t tied to title. Someone at your workplace might have a more impressive job title than you on paper, but that doesn’t mean you can’t wield just as much authority and influence in practice.

Sure, most middle managers don’t make influential decisions. But decision-making isn’t the only way to exert professional influence. We’ve learned that your power lies in implementing decisions. And the way you do it sets the course of the company. What could be more powerful than that?

It’s not enough to be convinced of your own power – you need to convince your team, too. If they doubt your authority, you’ve lost them. So, implement management decisions as if they were your own. Don’t play the blame game, and don’t divide your team and management into “us” and “them.” As soon as you say, “They’ve decided we need to...” or “They are telling us...” you’ve given up power.

Finally, remember that you’re uniquely placed in the firm; you have access to both high-level executives and front-line workers. You might be tempted to keep this access to yourself and to hoard the power that comes with it. But don’t. That kind of short-term power play isn’t a long-term power move.

Remember, powerful middle managers serve up. And when you share your access generously, you’re not only serving up but also across and down. Doing this shows exactly how confident you are in your own power and position.

Final summary

The key message in this article is:

“Serve up, coach down.” That should be your mantra if you want to lead from the middle. Put your trust in upper-level management and your energy into driving your team’s performance. Master these two components of middle leadership, and you’ll build up your own power and influence.

Actionable advice:

Report even when there’s nothing to report!

Maintaining professional relationships requires consistency. Make it your practice to check in regularly with all your contacts, including your boss, your staff, and your clients. If you have nothing to report, check in anyway! Touching base shows that you’re invested in the relationship.

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