Leading From The Middle: 4 Ways To Build Your Base

Now more than ever, the guys and gals “in the middle” need to step up and be real leaders in their organization.

Being caught in the middle is never easy: having to manage conflicting priorities, crazy schedules, an ever-changing business environment, demanding bosses, and a work-force that’s becoming ever more eclectic and diverse in its attitudes, proclivities and idiosyncrasies is no cake-walk.

The Middle People are stuck, responsible for executing their elders’ strategies as well as reigning in, aligning, and grooming their juniors for their own climb to the middle, and hoping that they themselves can move up while it still matters.

Ain’t nothing easy about it – especially these days, when the Baby Boomers are staying at work and the oft-maligned yet ever-eager Gen Y is looking at their Gen X managers sort of like the sharks look at the seals in those nature documentaries.

Now, before all the comedians in the room start making middle-manager jokes and playing “Cry Me A River” on the world’s smallest piano, let’s get some facts on the table.

Research released by Wharton’s Ethan Mollick in 2011 proclaimed that middle managers may be “the most important people in your company.” His study found that middle managers were the single largest differentiator for variations in project revenue, more even than firm strategy, innovators, and senior leadership.

This research is nice, because it validates something that The Middle People have known for a long time: they’re pretty darn useful and actually important. It’s nice to have some back up – especially the kind that refers to middle managers as “the glue that holds companies together” and decries all the “delayering” that’s been going on the last few years.

And let’s be honest, gang: everyone snickers about middle-management and complains about them, but no one really wants to try it themselves. USA Today famously asked in 2007, “Who Wants To Be A Middle Manager?” The answer, predictably, was “not too many people, and who can blame them?” Companies, those that aren’t actively hacking apart their middle management corps in the guise of “flattening for nimbleness” are finding that it’s actually pretty hard to groom, train, and retain good middle managers. No shock there: it can be a pretty ugly job, for all the reasons mentioned above, and plenty more.

All that being said, whether they realize it or not, firms need more of their middle manager corps. The coming wave of change in the way we do business requires it. If the firm’s leadership can’t see it or doesn’t want to embrace it, it’s incumbent on The Middle People themselves to take on this new mantle, at the very least to prepare and save themselves:

Today’s Middle and Junior Managers need to get started leading within their organization. The current pace of change is too great, and the scope of change too radical, to not take action now.

I don’t mean leading as in “rather than managing” their people – they’re (hopefully) doing that already. I mean leading with a capital “L,” uniting and organizing to prepare their firms for change from within.

To do this, managers need to create a base, a foundation on which to build their internal leadership. Here are 4 key steps managers can take to build their base and Lead From The Middle:

1. Embrace a Purpose. If you’re going to rally people and lead them, you’ll need a flag. Pick a purpose or two, something you really believe in, something related to your firm’s business. It can be a “cause” – like customer experience, or creating a better work environment for women, or ethical decision making, for instance – or it can be based around a function, like social business, supply chain, or training and development. Whatever it is, it’s got to be something aligned with what the firm does and something you truly care about (If you can’t find anything that’s both, you should probably try to find another job!). Learn as much as you can about not just what’s on trend, but what’s coming in the next few years.

2. Be a Connector. Take every possible opportunity to meet people in your firm who you’d not normally interact with. Learn about them and their team’s role in the business. Learn about what they do well and what keeps them up at night. Make friends and establish lots of weak ties throughout the enterprise. Make sure you let them know what you do, and what your passion and purpose are. Always be willing to lend a hand and always, when possible, introduce people who don’t know each other, to encourage weak-tie generation. Find people in the organization who have passion, purpose and drive (even if they’re interested in causes different than yours). Befriend and cultivate strong relationships with them. You’ll being seeing these people later in your career, and you’ll likely all need each other to succeed – best to have laid a solid foundation of trust and respect well in advance. It also won’t hurt for you to be aggressively networking with people outside your firm who can teach you, mentor you, and provide an alternate set of eyes on your reality. (Also, if you decide your current firm isn’t for you, having a solid network is essential).

3. Learn to Translate. Part of being a manager is learning how to translate strategy into tactics, and how to translate leader-speak to employee-speak within your silos. Now you need to learn to translate across silos. Walls will soon be coming down all across the enterprise, and the people poised to do the most good will be the ones who, when put on a cross-functional team, can understand the realities of all the people on the team and be a facilitator and a translator. Even if you’re not assigned a “lead” role, you’ll still be leading in the ways that really matter. This skill will also help you as you travel around the company, literally and figuratively. The more you can understand – and help others understand – the more helpful you will become to everyone.

4. Be an Advocate. Prepare yourself to explain, evangelize, and defend your cause to juniors, peers, and superiors alike. Be ready to explain how it aligns with the firm’s overall goals, how it will help the firm and your colleagues alike. Speak up when you can. Share your vision. Ask people to join you, or at least consider the merits. Spread your word. Own it all the way. Even if it’s voted down or otherwise rejected by the firm’s senior most folks, you’ve at least demonstrated your willingness to stick your neck out for something you believe in, and ability to gain support and mobilize followers. If that’s not leadership, then what the heck is? Maybe they’re not going to promote you to chairperson this afternoon, but that effort was good practice, for one, and for another, it’s established you as someone who can, and is reasy to lead.

Sooner or later, the Boomers will retire, and it’s not going to be pretty.

The resulting talent drain will require the middle managers and junior managers of today to be ready to step up and fill their shoes. Given the way things are already changing, I’d submit that as far as getting ready goes, there’s no time like the present.

Seth Cargiuolo

Leave a Comment

    • Carge
    • June 6, 2012

    Hey, thanks for chiming in, Annette & Karen! Good insight. Love the line about Nurses & Doctors, lol.

  1. Reply

    Agree, agree, agree. And what really gives Middles the juice to do all of this is integrating with their peers. This may be the hardest of all to do given how dispersed Middles are. But if Middles can master that dispersing space and integrate with one another, they can do things no one of them could imagine doing by themselves. It strengthens them individually, it enables them to provide more informed leadership to their teams, it takes a load off the Tops, and they can have major impact on their systems.

  2. Reply

    Seth, this is a great post! The best analogy I can come up with is… middle managers are like the nurses in the delivery room. They do all the work, and the doctor strolls in for the final push and takes all the credit! :-)

    Thanks for writing a great post!

    Annette :-)

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