“Managers, especially mid-tier managers, are sometimes referred to as ‘squashed tomatoes’ – because they are under pressure from above, below and all angles, especially in times of change. The leadership skills they need to succeed can be learned with the right approach, read on to find some useful insights on how."
- Steffan Brunner, Associate Director and Leadership Development Practice Lead
You’ve probably heard the saying “What got you here won’t get you there.” Oftentimes, managers were successful individual contributors and frontline leaders. That’s why they got promoted! But they may struggle with the transition into middle management.
Unlike most frontline leadership, mid-level leadership is multidirectional. Leaders find themselves stretched in all directions, navigating expectations from across multiple stakeholders and various teams. They must now deal with practical challenges like decision making or P&L complexity or personal challenges, like a lack of confidence among a new, more experienced peer group or managing increased stress. As leaders transition into middle management, there are four main sources of pressure that they may face. Their ability to navigate these pressures often determines whether they succeed or fail as they move up the ladder.
Leadership Skills That Managers in the Middle Need to Advance
1. Leading the Business
Middle managers must translate their company’s strategy into execution. This requires complex decision making and comes with risk. They must shift from the tactical focus of frontline leadership to the broader focus of strategic leadership. If they can’t shift their mindset to a long-term vision, they may revert to frontline behaviours, focusing on operational tasks and unintentionally neglecting long-term organisational goals.
2. Leading Teams
Managers are the ambassadors of organisational culture. And with the shift to remote and hybrid work, managers may be the only faces of company senior leadership that employees regularly see. In the absence of traditional “brick and mortar” office culture, the leader is the culture. They may also lead global, diverse teams, requiring more developed communication and interpersonal skills to convey clear and compelling visions across teams, provide purpose, and clarify the organisation’s strategic priorities.
3. Leading Networks
With a larger network of constituents, skills such as influencing and stakeholder management become essential. It’s easier to get things done when driving execution at the front line with a team. But success in the middle requires working across boundaries to influence colleagues they may not have direct reporting authority over. To make progress, managers must navigate competing priorities, organisational politics, and limited resources across different groups in the organisation. They must make sure that key stakeholders are aligned and involved in executing the strategy.
4. Leading Self
Leaders are more visible now, and such change comes with the role. As a mid-level leader, you are managing larger, more strategic initiatives, making decisions with larger consequences, and influencing across your network and organisation. As a result, success and failure is more visible to your teams, peers, and senior leadership. This means that their leadership style, tendencies, and behaviors are also more visible. Greater risk, greater consequences of failure, and greater uncertainty require middle managers to gain self-awareness of personality traits that could derail success or erode trust and learn how to effectively manage them. Interpersonal skills also become critical as middle managers rely on other teams and leaders to achieve goals.
Strategies to Engage Middle Managers
To engage your middle managers, you must first recognise that they have unique learning needs.
1. Deeper business and leadership development experience
Middle managers want to dive into business strategy, not just theory. And they seek guidance from experienced senior leaders.
2. Greater psychological safety
While psychological safety is important at every level, as leaders get higher in the organisation, self-disclosure becomes riskier. They may be reluctant to admit that they’re struggling, fearing that they will look weak or unfit for their role. At this level, it is more critical than ever that they feel psychologically safe and have protected learning environments.
3. Focus on self-awareness and mindset
At this level, a leader’s personal impact cascades across many people, and new mid-level leaders may not realise how their habits and tendencies begin to deeply affect others and their ability to engage others. Self-awareness is crucial. Self-insight tools and personal reflection are key to development at this level.
4. More complexity
Middle managers benefit from challenging learning experiences, including complex experiential exercises. Simple models must be adapted to reflect the complexity of the role.
5. Facilitator credibility in judgment
As leaders move into higher-level roles, they need higher-level facilitators with greater business experience to increase relevancy and advance conversation. Instead of one-way communication where knowledge is transferred, facilitators must engage leaders by leading discussion, seeking examples, and offering analogies.
6. Expect to network and learn with peers
Mid-level leaders are increasingly busy and geographically dispersed, making it difficult to connect with peers. But as they play a broader role in working across silos to get things done, networking with their peers should be a critical part of their development experience. Learning experiences must promote opportunities to learn from one another. Sometimes a leader just needs to hear that they aren’t alone and that others have the same challenges.
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