How To Lead Middle Managers

Imagine for a moment that you owned a community swimming pool.

As the owner of the pool, you are responsible for making sure your customers swim in clean water and do not drown. Now you can’t be at the pool all day because you have other responsibilities. For example, you have to go make sure that you are signing up new pool members, going to the wholesale store to stock the snack bar, and fixing things around the pool when they break. In that scenario, you will need someone to watch over the pool and keep it safe. Would you trust that responsibility to someone who can’t swim? How about hiring someone who can swim but is not a certified lifeguard?

In this case, you would hire a trained and experienced lifeguard. If your pool is known for being unsafe, you are negligent and likely out of business.

Yet, businesses do things like this every day. They often make people “lifeguards” in their company without training to help them do their job well.

Most businesses don’t have literal lifeguards. With this analogy, I am referring to “Middle-managers.” Like the lifeguard, middle managers play a critical role in the success of the company, yet are often under-resourced to do the job well.

Middle Managers are often caught in the middle of expectations and demands from individual contributors and senior leaders.

The Important Role of Middle-Managers

Middle managers serve a vital role in most organizations. As the leader closest to the work, these managers are often responsible for making sure the business opens on time, is staffed correctly, and meets sales targets. They manage the requirements and expectations of both individual contributor employees and senior leaders. High performing individual contributors usually fill these leadership roles with no training or context to be successful in their new role.

Furthermore, these leaders are the most important for employee engagement. They lead individual contributors who are the biggest part of an organizations’ workforce. Individual contributors often decide to leave or stay at an organization due to their interacts and relationships with their direct supervisor.

In fact, middle managers are often responsible for being “The CEO” of their part of the business. They must navigate and drive results in revenue generation, operational efficiency, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement. In addition, they are also delegated additional responsibility or instruction from senior leadership about how to do to their jobs. Most compliance and reporting functions are delegated for at least preparation among middle managers.

Businesses Under Value These Leaders

According to a recent article from McKinsey, middle managers are often undervalued and underutilized in organizations. Despite functioning as a crucial link between top management and front-line employees, middle-managers often face significant challenges, such as conflicting demands and unclear responsibilities. The McKinsey article recommends that organizations should invest in developing middle managers’ skills and providing them with clear expectations and support to enable them to become effective leaders who can drive organizational success.

The article also suggests several strategies for empowering middle managers, such as creating a culture of feedback and recognition, providing opportunities for professional development, and fostering a sense of ownership and accountability. By investing in middle managers, organizations can unleash their potential and improve overall performance.

Five Ways to Engage Middle Managers

The article from McKinsey suggests numerous ways to better engage middle managers. In my experience, I have used several additional tactics to help these leaders be successful.

1. Give Them a Real Orientation

Many people entering a middle manager role have never held a leadership role before. Making sure they have an immersive multi-day orientation is important. Give them opportunities to learn systems and mechanics as well as the basics of leadership.

2. Clearly Define Their Role and Your Expectations

These leaders have the most scrutiny of living the organization’s values and achieving results. Make sure you clearly communicate your expectations of them in as clear language as possible. Spend time with them and let them know that they are vital to the organization achieving its goals. Be accessible to these leaders. After-all, they are your “Lifeguards”. Without them, your business does not work.

3. Develop Middle Managers to be Leaders

While we call these roles, “Managers,” in today’s business environment, organizations need them to lead. Since they are the leaders closest to the work or the customer, how they manage their business unit has a disproportionate impact on organizational results. Spend time with these managers to coach them. Ask them questions about what made them want to be a leader and how they want to lead with intention. Answer their questions when there is a new initiative and they are struggling with understanding its purpose.

4. Engage in Skip Level Meetings

Skip level meetings is a standard practice for me. A skip level meeting is when you have regular check-ins with the people who report to the person who reports to you. I always try to be aware if I, as a senior leader, am being managed. It’s important to know if a middle manager is indeed as skilled as they say they are or if they are making the teams they lead miserable. Regular skip-level meetings are an effective strategy to create more social bonds with your employees and have you finger on the pulse of the business.

5. Cut Red Tape Where You Can

There are a lot of well-intentioned people who create a lot of initiatives that get “pushed down” to middle managers. Too many of these initiatives from silo-ed units can crush middle managers, often overburdening them with tasks like data collection and reporting. This can lead to dissatisfaction and burnout. In addition complicated and dysfunctional processes can create unnecessary delays in addressing the needs of middle managers. When you identify red tape that is either inefficient or downright wasteful, fix it or eliminate it to make middle managers’ lives easier.

We Must Do Better

Middle managers are vital leaders in most organizations. Despite that, they are usually undertrained and under-resourced to do their jobs effectively. They deserve more than “Sink or swim.” They deserve to be guided and prepared for the awesome responsibility that is leadership.

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Key Takeaways

Middle managers play an essential role in organizations, however they are are often undervalued and underutilized. Organizations should invest in their professional development to empower them to drive organizational success. There are several important strategies for engaging middle managers, such as clearly defining their roles and expectations, developing them as leaders, and cutting red tape.