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.

Team Accountability Isn’t What You Think it is

The idea of team accountability is important, but often misunderstood. Many organizations struggle to hold people accountable. Leaders must have a good understanding of accountability to be an effective leader.

Gone are the days of rewards and punishments to drive team accountability. When most leaders discuss “holding people accountable,” they usually mean terminating low performers or punishing them in some other way. Accountability, by this definition, does not work. Instead, it becomes a recipe for turnover and disengagement.

When Accountability is Confused with Punishment

When I speak with leaders, especially leaders in middle management, there is frequent frustration around team accountability. What they tend to talk about as we unpack accountability is dissatisfaction about politics, treatment, and behaviors. Other leaders want to tie accountability to performance, similar to how General Electric CEO Jack Welsh used “Stack rankings” in the 1980s. In this model, the bottom 10% of performers would be fired at years’ end.

Tying team accountability only to outcomes is problematic because it discourages appropriate risk-taking. In addition, even high performers miss targets for legitimate reasons. While there needs to be recognition that the person did not meet their goals, punishing them is usually unwarranted. Tactics like “Stack rankings” are ineffective due to their short term orientation and punitive nature. “Stack rankings” only served to create a cut-throat and disengaged culture.

So that brings us back to the middle manager definition of team accountability. What they refer to when they describe a lack of accountability is witnessing inconsistent treatment based on favoritism, rude behavior, or a lack of performance among their peers with no obvious consequences. Using that as a starting point helps us to better understand how effective leaders understand team accountability.

Working-Definition of Team Accountability

With these leaders in mind, my personal working definition of team accountability involves two aspects: Empowerment and Transparency.

Team Accountability is really about empowerment and transparency

An organization cannot have accountability without empowerment. If leaders are not able to creatively and uniquely develop strategies and tactics to achieve their goals, accountability is not possible. There must be space for leaders to maneuver in an organization. This means that senior leaders need to set clear performance goals and expectations for behavioral standards that all team-members must follow. Leaders should have plenty of room to achieve their goals within those well-defined boundaries without being micromanaged. Creating a clear boundary like this simultaneously encourages mid-level leaders to think more like owners of their book of business, rather than managers executing someone else’s playbook.

Effective leaders use transparency as the other powerful tool in creating a sense of team accountability. By publishing relevant data regularly, it becomes abundantly clear who is high performing and who is not. In these instances, the healthiest cultures will see high performing leaders helping lower performing leaders. Further, the leaders who are struggling are aware of it and are given additional help and support.

When empowerment and transparency occur together, there is rarely a need for punishment. Everyone in the organization understands the expectations and whether they and their teams are meeting those expectations. In these cases, the conversations around accountability almost disappear. This is because often these organizations are achieving their goals and because the organization’s expectations around performance and behavior are communicated openly and repeatedly.

Using Accountability in your Leadership Practice

When a leader defines accountability as the sum of empowerment and transparency, they can achieve incredible results. I know this from personal experience. I once inherited a team that was low performing and high-drama, often asking for accountability for other team members. When we introduced clear boundaries for empowerment and transparent weekly data reporting, we never heard about accountability again.

The desire for accountability is usually a symptom of under-defined expectations and a lack of transparency. Using this model, leaders can have an immediate impact of getting the team focused on what matters most: Driving results and growing the organization in a way that supports and empowers the employees of that organization.

Key Takeaways

Team accountability is the sum of a culture that has empowerment and transparency. Clearly defined goals and behavioral expectations, coupled with transparent reporting, help to create clarity and focus on results.

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Why Leaders with a Transactional Style Don’t Achieve Transformational Results

Transformational leadership is a leadership approach that seeks to inspire and empower others, rather than simply trying to control them. This approach can produce dramatic results for an organization by generating high levels of commitment, creativity, and productivity from its followers. Transformational leadership has two dimensions: (1) their level of warmth or concern for the people they lead and (2) their level of intellectual stimulation or use of new ideas in relation to the people they lead.

On the other hand, a transactional leadership approach focuses more on maintaining order and getting work done through a system of rewards and punishments. It does not create a sense of loyalty among employees because they are not offered much beyond compensation.

Richard Branson, the Founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, is a transformational leader because he is interested in fostering leadership skills and creativity among his employees. He seeks to inspire others, rather than simply control them. For example, when Richard’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines was struggling financially during the global recession of 2009, instead of firing workers or hiring consultants like other CEOs might have done under similar circumstances, he flew to London and he spent the next few weeks checking in on every aspect of his company, asking employees for their ideas on how to save the business.

Transactional leadership focuses more on maintaining order and getting work done through rewards. There are many examples of transactional leadership in business. One example is a CEO who assigns employees tasks and then closely monitors their performance on those tasks, specifically to determine if they will be able to keep their jobs or not. This CEO uses rewards and punishments in order to achieve results, and often, their actions benefit themselves more than the employees.

As you can see in the example above, transactional leaders are inherently more short term focused and are oriented towards immediate results. This can lead some transactional leaders to prioritize a short term benefit at the detriment of longer-term goals. Simon Sinek shares the example of publicly traded companies who go through rounds of layoffs to make quarterly numbers. While the companies may “make their numbers,” they do so at the cost of psychological safety and long term profitability.

True organizational transformation, like pursuing excellence in customer service, operations, or innovation, involves focus, discipline, leadership, and time. There is no “Get rich quick scheme” in transformational leadership.

Organizations that pursue transformational goals need transformational leaders. These are leaders that set a bold vision and build high-performing teams, follow principles that promote psychological safety, and empower people to achieve their vision.

There is a still a role in organizations for transactional leaders, which is a topic for it’s own post, but they are fundamentally ill-equipped to achieve bold and lasting organizational transformation. Creating bold transformation actually requires the leader to release control by empowering others and trusting that people are doing the right things even when you cannot measure it.

Transformational leadership offers a vision that gets people energized and committed to achieving organizational goals.

Transformational leaders embody the principles of psychological safety by creating an inclusive environment where all employees feel valued, regardless of their position in the company hierarchy. Having transformational leaders in leadership roles will help organizations achieve their full potential. These are the individuals who will leave a powerful legacy by creating meaningful and impactful change.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Transformational leadership is a powerful way for leaders to motivate and inspire their followers. In contrast, transactional leadership can be used as a tool by those in power who want to maintain control over followers through incentives or punishments—but these tactics do not provide long-term results. To achieve real transformation, leaders need to be transformational leaders. A transactional leader will not be able to truly achieve transformational goals.

Legends never die

Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong.

Babe Ruth’s Ghost from The Sandlot

Over the 4th of July, I turned on one of my favorite movies, The Sandlot, which is a story about friendship, community, and baseball. I have probably seen this movie hundreds of times, mostly wearing out the VHS tape at my parent’s house when I was a child.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie happens when Babe Ruth’s ghost visits one of the main characters in the movie, Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in a dream. The ghost leaves Benny with these words, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die, follow your heart kid, and you’ll never go wrong”.

Heroes, of course, are people. We look up to them, we learn from them, and we follow their example. But like all people, they are mortal and will eventually pass away.

Legends, or stories, however, are different. It brings our memories to life and they create powerful feelings of interconnectedness.

This difference between heroes and legends has become even more clear to me recently. A few months ago, I bought an ancestry DNA kit and have used it to build out my family tree. It is a wonderful exercise and one I recommend for everyone who wants to learn more about their heritage. Through ancestry, I was able to map back three generations. But what are simply names in census data can “come to life” once again through stories.

For example, my great grandfather, Herman Sachs, was a talented painter. Before he passed away, my grandfather, Arnie Sachs, told me a story that Great-Grandpa Herman asked him one morning what color he wanted his room to be painted. My grandfather answered smartly, “knotty pine,” and when he arrived home his room looked like the inside of a tree!

When I think of that story, in a way it brings my Great-Grandpa Herman back to life, in a way. He has become more than a name now for me. The story gave me some color-commentary, an indication of his personality and talent. The “legend” gives me a lens into who he was and it is a story I will pass down to my own son, Aaron. Stories like this one makes me realize that for so many of my other relatives, I have only names, a small piece of who they were without the legend. While it is hard for me to remember most of their names, Great-Grandpa Herman’s is one I will always remember.

As leaders, the stories we tell (and are told about us) are powerful influences on how we accomplish our goals. Stories that we tell can help us contextualize the direction we set, and can be used to cement that direction to our teams’ collective memory. Stories that are told about us can either inspire confidence, faith, and trust, or they can work against us. That is why leading by example is so important, as those are the stories the team tells each other about us when we are not present.

The more leaders can integrate storytelling into their presentations and other methods of communication, the better their teams will be able to follow and spread the important messages. A good story has an exponential effect when it is told multiple times to better reinforce and embed it into the culture.

If you are a leader, the legends you tell will endure as part of the fabric of your organization. Further the legends that are told about you will be your legacy.

Knowing the power of the story and its enduring capabilities, what will you do next?

KEY TAKEAWAY: Storytelling is an important tool in a leader’s toolbox. It can help them spread the message and create a positive team culture. It can also work against them if they are not leading by example.

Practice and preparation

Last week I wrote about the Washington Nationals historic run to win the World Series. Continuing on the sports theme this week, football can teach us a lot about the value of practice and preparation.

Unlike baseball’s grueling 162 game schedule, the NFL plays just 16 regular season games over 17 weeks in their season. Therefore most of the work of a football team is practice and preparation for each game. Coaches and players study film from previous games, practices, meet together, and strategize for their opponents, often around the clock.

Football coaches teach us about the value of organized practice and preparation, which we can apply to the practice of leadership. Over the summer, I read Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All Time by Ian O’Connor. Of the many excellent examples and anecdotes in the book, O’Connor wrote about a now famous play in the final minutes that helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (49) against the Seattle Seahawks.

In the play, Malcolm Butler intercepted Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass at the Patriots goal line. The Patriots coaches had the team run this play several times in practice, where Butler played it incorrectly. In the big game though, Butler got it right and helped seal the win for the Patriots. Here’s the story from the coaches:

(If you are having problems viewing the video, you can click here for it)

Practice and preparation can make a world of difference. At work, I have developed a couple of systems to aid in making sure I am prepared. For example, I always print out my calendar for the upcoming week. I highlight in the color blue all the scheduled events that require preparation. I put copies of the documents I need for those meetings in a folder whose front cover is my highlighted weekly agenda.

I know I feel the most confident in presentations that I have practiced and tested with different audiences. I will take bits and pieces of new ideas and test them out in smaller settings before adding them to larger presentations to make sure that they work with an audience. I will also practice the final presentation repeatedly (usually practicing in front of my patient wife, Sheryl) to feel confident that I know the order and timing of everything when the time for the big presentation arrives.

What are your systems for practice and preparation? I would like to hear more about them and include them in a future blog post. Please share them with me here.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The practice and preparation involved in football teaches lessons for leaders in business as well. Often times leaders develop systems to prepare and practice for opportunities ahead to stay at the top of their games.