Workplace Culture

Stuck in the Middle

By Madeleine Homan-Blanchard

Sep. 21, 2015

illustration by Anna Jo Beck

Being a midlevel manager is tough.

As someone who reports to senior leadership and manages at least one or often two layers, of junior staff, midlevel managers typically don’t play a part in setting the organizational vision or strategies. Yet, they have the responsibility of guiding others in support of that vision.The Argument logo

Midlevel managers must be able to lead their team effectively while also managing up at the same time. They must master leadership on multiple fronts: communicating, coaching and working with their own staff as well as getting the right amount of support and direction from their own leader — all while keeping up with their peers.

To complicate matters, midlevel managers often work with multiple generations in technical jobs in which they personally have no expertise. Finally, by the time many folks get to midlevel management, they have small children, cranky teenagers and aging parents — or an exhausting combination of all — to care for in their supposed leisure time at home.

Many midlevel managers are so focused on daily tasks that they overlook the importance of developing relationships.

Recognizing and working with the subtleties of managing up, developing and nurturing relationships with peers, and leading others requires tenacity and focus. In fact, according to a study conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger Folkman, the bulk of the most disengaged workers are midlevel managers. And why wouldn’t they be? Middle management is often a thankless marathon endurance event that never seems to end.

Connection Matters

Many midlevel managers tend to focus exclusively on their boss and direct reports. After all, isn’t that hard enough? Yes it is — but if you work in this zone, go the distance and broaden your reach. Learn about and connect with those outside your bubble.

The complexity involved in getting things done in any organization requires a massive amount of attention. There are processes and systems, and then there is the well-worn elephant path — the way things get done unofficially. There are the roles and responsibilities on the organizational chart, and then there are the people you have to go to for special favors to make something actually happen. To understand the sanctioned and the underground rules, you must have a grasp of the whole — often very big — picture.

The best way to do this is to first spend some time with the organizational chart and make absolutely certain that you know exactly who each person is, what their goals and agendas are, and to what extent that person is able to help— or hinder — you in accomplishing your goals. For example, if there is a turf war going on that involves your boss, you need to be aware of it.

If someone other than your boss has the knowledge or power to help you achieve your goals in addition to your boss, you need to develop that relationship. If there is someone whom you admire and whose career you would like to emulate, ask that person to mentor you.

Many midlevel managers are so focused on daily tasks that they overlook the importance of developing relationships with their peers in the organization. These are the people who can choose to help you in a pinch — or not. You don’t need to be everyone’s best friend, but you do need to get to know them and understand what is important to them, and look for small things you can do to make their lives easier. You never know who may be asked to rate you on a 360-degree feedback assessment or who may be on the senior leadership team with you someday.

Author and behavioral researcher Keith Ferrazzi wrote a book in 2014 titled “Never Eat Alone.” The title pretty much says it all. Midlevel managers who get the most done and keep growing their career know people. If you aren’t sure how to get better at it, the book outlines step-by-step instructions that even the most introverted among us can implement. Start slow if you need to, but start.

Finally, midlevel managers are only as successful as their people — so staying connected with each and every direct report is absolutely critical. The best way to do this is to have regular one-on-one meetings with each of them. No time? Almost everyone says that initially. But even 15 minutes every other week can make the difference. The staff member drives theagenda — questions, updates, specific requests for direction or support — so be sure each person takes the time to prepare in advance so that their precious time is used wisely.

Efficiency Counts

Most midlevel managers feel there are simply not enough hours in the day. The reward for doing great work is — you guessed it — more work. Any process or system you can implement to keep yourself organized and on top of things is going to count now more than ever.

Basic time management skills are available to anyone with access to the Internet. One favorite tool to help midlevel managers prioritize tasks is the Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by author Stephen Covey as the Time Management Matrix. The idea is to categorize each of your activities or tasks into one of these buckets:

  • Important and urgent (do right away).
  • Important but not urgent, like relationship-building (plan and schedule).
  • Not important but urgent, like interruptions (these should be delegated or eliminated).
  • Not important and not urgent (usually wasted time possibly at least one regular meeting you attend).

Spending 15 minutes to plan your goals and tasks every day has never been more important. If you tend to focus on what’s most important and delegate the rest, that’s good; if you don’t, now is the time to start.

Next, require your direct reports to be as efficient as you are and keep you carefully informed by having them prepare a 5-15 report for you each week. A 5-15 report — invented by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia — is a weekly report staff members generate for their managers that should take no more than 15 minutes to create and no more than five minutes to read. It is a succinct listing of all accomplishments, challenges and opportunities, along with a brief preview of plans for the upcoming week. The 5-15 is an efficient way for each employee to keep managers updated and for whole teams to stay informed without having to spend precious meeting time. 

While we are talking about managing the efficiency of your direct reports, one of the real dangers of being a midlevel manager is becoming too attached to your employees and overidentifying with their points of view.

Caring about your people is an admirable and essential quality of a leader, but it can cloud your judgment when it’s necessary to be the bad guy. When enforcing compliance or managing change, you might default to going easy on your people, especially if you don’t agree with the strategy or the new process. This can be the kiss of death.

All senior leaders know when their managers have succumbed to caring more about being liked than actually managing the results.

Of course this can be a very tricky polarity to manage. Having a real connection with each team member is important, but think twice if you find yourself spending more time arguing for your people’s benefit than holding them accountable.

Caring Begins With You

Many midlevel managers take care of people at home, race to work, and then race back home again. Those with the longest days are the ones who are caring for both children and aging parents.

One midlevel manager said that he “wipes noses all day” — at home and at work. It is exhausting to be surrounded by need 24/7. Most midlevel managers put their needs and health last on their list of priorities — and then end up in their mid-40s wondering how things got so out of whack.

It’s up to you to make sure your quality of life doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. How do you stay the course without sacrificing your mental and physical health? Make extreme self care your absolute No. 1 priority. Here’s how:

  • Decide on one or two things you are going to do that are just for you. Maybe it is exercise or a hobby of some sort. Commit to it and get support from everyone around you.
  • Use your commute time to listen to audio books or have a regular chat with your best friend.
  • Request a stand-up desk at work so you aren’t sitting so much, and schedule your one-on-ones as walking meetings.
  • Be sure to use all of your vacation days — even if you don’t think your people can get along without you.

Take care of yourself careerwise as well. Folkman’s research reveals that many midlevel managers feel unheard, undervalued and stuck. It is true that the better you are at your job as a midlevel managers, the more obscure you become.

You can’t let this happen. To stay visible to the organization at large, search around for opportunities to get involved outside of your regular task cycle: write posts for the company blog or get on an event planning committee. At first it may feel like just another task, but if there’s a chance to do something fun and interesting and get out of your cube, seize it. It’s a great way to meet people in the organization, feel like more than a cogwheel and make yourself known.

Another challenge for midlevel managers is to stay on their boss’ radar. Make sure your supervisor understands what you’re getting done and how you’re making their life easier. If you don’t have regular one on ones, prepare your own 5-15 where you highlight your accomplishments in an email and send it to your boss each week.

Try not to make a lot of changes at once. People often fail to achieve goals if they have too many of them. Take one of the ideas that resonates with you and that you think will give you the biggest return on investment of time and brain share, and start with that.

Making the Most of the Middle

Remember that the tenure in the middle can be a long one; in fact, many managers stay there for the entire latter part of their careers. Gritting your teeth and trying to wait it out might not work very well. So settle in for the long haul, breathe deep and pace yourself.

It’s easy to forget how important the middle can be, especially if you’re in it — but the midlevel manager is the peanut butter and the jelly of the sandwich.

If you are one of these heroes, you need to build your network, manage your time effectively, and take extraordinarily good care of yourself. And if you are the leader of one or more of these people, study the same three areas and find ways you can help your hardworking midlevel managers take care of themselves, manage their time and continue to grow and develop.

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a co-founder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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