Leading from the middle isn’t easy. To do it well, you must be able to manage up, down and sideways, juggling the demands of your boss, the needs of your direct reports, and the collaboration desired by your peers. You need to understand the company vision and strategy while at the same time be able to manage the details of your department. You must handle the pressure of needing to be all things to all people and balance the competing priorities within the organization.
The key to succeeding in a middle management role is to stay focused, communicate often, and don’t take things personally. You can make a significant difference in your organization by figuring out how to navigate the ins and outs of the company structure to get things done. And when you lead well from the middle, you’re not likely to stay in the middle for long. Here are some tips.
Communication is Critical
In most organizations, communication has a trickle-down effect and the ‘why’ gets diluted the further it gets from the top. Do not let this happen to you. Great middle managers know how to ask for information and then distill it down to actionable tasks that his or her team can execute. Make sure you are on the same page as your boss, ask for advice when appropriate, and talk to your team as often as possible.
Great managers are honest and direct in their communication. Both your manager and your employees should always know where you stand. To give feedback effectively be clear, be positive, focus on the behavior rather than the person, be specific, and make it a two-way conversation.
Giving feedback is hard to do and great managers take it like a champ, making it as easy as possible on those who are forward with constructive criticism. Show your willingness to take feedback by listening closely to what’s being said. Ask clarifying questions and refrain from making excuses or getting defensive. Say thank you and then take action to show that you heard and valued the feedback.
Middle managers must be able to handle stress, uncertainty, and setbacks with grace as shifting priorities and miss-communication can put them in difficult situations. Don’t take setbacks personally...they are part of the job. Treat every problem as part of your learning process, don’t over dramatize the issue, find a positive outcome, and then move on.
Stop talking and start listening. To be a great middle manager, you need to understand what your boss, your employees, and your customers are truly saying so you can make better decisions. There are nuisances in every conversation and if you catch them, you’ll be better able to navigate office politics. Pay attention to your employees’ feedback and suggestions; act to show that you can effectively solve problems.
As management guru and author Kenneth Blanchard said, "The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority." To get things done, you must be able to influence those around you. While being a manager gives you a certain amount of influence, you can be more effective if you take the time to build trust and prove that you want to help others succeed. To cultivate influence, learn about others’ working styles, goals, and priorities, be personable, and listen mindfully. Get out of your office and engage.
Great middle managers know that they must work well with their peers to break down silos and get big projects done. Forging ties with management peers enhances individual success and improves the company’s bottom line. Seek out opportunities to connect with your peers, bridge gaps between departments by being helpful, share information and follow up often.
Do Your Work with Integrity
Effective leadership is all about getting results the right way. Do your work with impeccable integrity and intention. Don’t cut corners, cheat, violate values, or step on others to get the job done. If you make a mistake, take ownership of it. People who demonstrate integrity draw others to them because they are trustworthy and dependable.
More than ever, great managers are needed at every level of an organization. Be bold and accept the challenge of middle management. You’ll emerge a far better leader and you’ll create new opportunities to stretch yourself and your team.
As always, thank you for reading! I welcome and encourage likes, shares, and comments.
There are many attributes and qualities that can be assigned to good managers such as being a decent listener, accountable, organized, motivating, honest, and having a positive outlook on life. While these are all important, they are the minimum requirements of good management.
So what makes a manager GREAT?
In developing my own managerial skills and helping others to do the same, I have found that accomplishing these six things will help a good manager become a GREAT manager.
1. Connect Through Regular One-on-One Meetings
The best way to build strong relationships is to have regular one-on-one meetings with each team member. Most people want to share certain aspects of their lives and appreciate when their boss takes the time to get to know them better, especially when it comes to personal and career aspirations. Use these one-on-one meetings to ask good questions, discuss professional development and performance, solve problems, and review priorities and projects. Effective one-on-one meetings will result in more effective relationships.
2. Right Seat on the Bus
It’s not enough to have talent on your team; your employees must be in the right seat on the bus to do fantastic work. Great managers recognize their employees will be at their best when their talents and strengths are in alignment with their roles. It takes time to gain meaningful insights to what makes your employees tick, but doing so will help you create, tweak, or change roles to help them do what they are best at every day. This will result in happier, more productive and engaged team members who enjoy their work.
3. Continuous Improvement
There are many ways to make an organization better and great managers are committed to always improving. They understand that the intentional pursuit of honing processes, teamwork, goal-setting, cultural issues, communication, collaboration, and quality and content of work product will reduce obstacles that frustrate employees and in turn, make the organization stronger.
4. Good Decision-Making
Leaders who make good decisions and who empower their teams to do the same are highly regarded in most organizations. Good decision-making builds trust and credibility and creates success. While your team might not always agree with your decisions, it’s hard to argue when they turn out to be good ones. Improve your decision-making skills by slowing down, listening more, and considering all possibilities. Ask questions and obtain as much input as possible. Recognize that you (and everyone else) are full of biases that cloud your judgment. The more you expose your biases, the better decisions you will make. Read my blog on bias here for more insight on better decision making.
5.Rally Teams Around the Bigger Picture by Tying it to the Daily Picture
A job is just a job (aka a paycheck) when you can’t see how it’s tied to the bigger picture. Great managers understand that most of us want to be part of something greater than ourselves and tap into that motivation by ensuring every employee understands and cares about the company strategy and vision for the future. The key is tying strategy to the work a person does each day including well thought out and communicated departmental plans, KPIs, work prioritization, and individual goals. Be transparent, talk about and get feedback on the vision and strategy often, engage more than just the usual suspects in vision and goal development, and celebrate small and big wins often. The more connected your team is to the bigger picture, the greater chance for success.
6. Radically Candid
I saved the most important for last; if you must pick only one of these points to work on, improving how you give feedback should be at the top of the list. Great managers are always candid and address performance issues directly and timely. They show they care by being honest, compassionate, and holding their team accountable to high standards. They never take the easy way out by putting off tough conversations, sugar coating bad news, or letting their desire to be liked to get in the way. They understand that every person on their team deserves to know how they are performing, what they need to do to improve, and how they are perceived within the organization. You cannot be a great boss if you are not giving regular, candid feedback. Repeat this mantra over and over. If you want to get better at giving feedback, I highly recommend reading “Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity” by Kim Scott. It’s a game changer.
Mastering these six points will not only help you become a better manager, but more importantly, will help you develop good employees into great ones. And that’s the legacy all rock star managers should want to leave behind.
Thanks for reading. As always, comments, like and shares are appreciated so please do so if you are inclined.
How Having Regular Performance Conversations Creates Better Employees and Makes You a Better Manager
I was recently asked what I think is the most important thing a manager can do to develop his or her people. The answer is simple: a good manager who is committed to developing his or her employees is also committed to always providing meaningful performance feedback. And by always, I don’t mean once a year during an annual performance evaluation.
Every employee in your organization deserves to know where he or she stands at all times. That’s why the dreaded annual evaluation process doesn’t work. Having a once-a-year discussion with an employee about her goals and performance isn’t motivating nor does it change behavior.
So what do I do, you say? I recommend getting rid of your annual performance review and commit to having regular performance conversations. At least once per quarter (although I try to do it twice per quarter due to its effectiveness), you should meet with each of your employees to discuss what’s going well and what isn’t, and create an action plan for career development and improvement. This is also a good opportunity to ensure your employees are working on the RIGHT things…work that ties to strategy execution and that is of high value to the company.
To prepare for these performance discussions, ask each employee to write out his or her answers these 4 questions…
Once they have provided you with their responses, add your comments. Be sure to highlight examples of things you’ve seen going well and give candid feedback on what can be improved, even if it seems insignificant. Even the smallest of course corrections can yield big results. Analyze their responses to the third question about what they are working on right now. Notice I didn’t ask “what are your top two priorities?” Priorities don’t always tie to what an employee is actually doing and this is a problem. You need to make sure that they are spending their time on the RIGHT tasks, ensuring that their goals are aligned with the company strategy. This is far more effective than setting goals once per year. Lastly, the fourth question should never ever be overlooked. Even if he says that there is nothing you can do to help him improve, dig a bit more. Ask if there are things you do that get in the way or make his job harder. Don’t be satisfied with a non-answer. Getting feedback from your employees is how you improve your performance.
But this takes so much time, you say? Yes, it does but the results you get from giving regular feedback far outweigh the time it takes to sit down for 45 minutes to talk about performance. I can promise you this...your employees need and want feedback; they crave it, both good and bad. It helps them get better at their jobs, which is a good thing for you as a manager. Don’t believe me? Check out this HBR article. Plus, what could be more important than helping your employees improve? People are your greatest asset and rock star employees are what make a company successful. Your number one goal should be to develop as many of them as you can.
But I don’t have the ability to influence my company’s annual performance review process, you say? So what? Follow the above process anyway. It will make your job easier at the end of the year when you have to prepare the annual evaluation; you’ll have four (or eight) documented performance conversations to refer to. You will also have motivated and productive employees because they are getting regular, meaningful feedback throughout the year. And if you have an employee who has continuous performance issues with little corrective action, it’ll be easier to manage him into another role or out of the company because you’ll have plenty of documented conversations to back up your decision. HR will love you for this!
Lastly, don’t wait for your quarterly (or bi-quarterly) meetings to give feedback; receiving it real-time allows employees to more clearly see how their behavior or effort is affecting their performance, especially when it’s tied to a specific instance. For example, if an employee is checking her phone during a meeting and generally not paying attention, pull her aside afterwards and ask her about her inattentiveness. It’s important to understand why she’s exhibiting the behavior before jumping into the feedback. This will give insight as to what’s going on without making her defensive. Then share with her that both you and the team don’t feel that she is engaged when she’s not actively participating, and this hurts her ability to be an effective teammate and it causes her to be perceived as unhelpful. Help her come up with a plan to solve her issues around why she wasn’t participating so she can actively engage and be a better teammate. This is highly effective…it would have lost its punch if you would have waited until the next performance conversation to share it…in fact, you probably would have blown it off and not said anything. Doing it real-time allows her to make immediate changes and it gives you insight to an issue she was struggling with, allowing you to help her move past it. This is great management.
I hope this inspired you to improve your performance review process. If this blog post didn’t, perhaps this will…
As always, thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment, like, and share (just click the buttons below) and sign up to receive by blog in your inbox by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page to subscribe.
I recently had a conversation with a bright young woman about her deep need to realize her own potential. Her current job was a fit for her skills, talents and needs in some ways, but she felt underutilized in others and that several of the job requirements weren’t a good match. She loved the company she worked for but she believed that her immediate career path was limited because there wasn’t a clear role for her to move into. It was hard for her to see the possibilities of what didn’t yet exist. No job description, no open position, no job, right?
But the fact is that new jobs are created every day. At companies across the globe, jobs are being established as leaders implement new strategies, enter new markets, create new business models, and develop new technology. And forward thinking companies are creating new roles that are designed specifically for highly capable people, fully utilizing their talents and helping them reach new potentials.
Early in my management career, I was inspired by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book “First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers do Differently.” In their book, Buckingham and Coffman explain how the best managers select an employee for talent rather than for skills or experience and motivate him or her by building on strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses. This leads to high performance, deep engagement, and what I like to call “rock star” employees.
This message resonated deeply with me. There was nothing I wanted more than to be a great manager and create an environment where “rock stars” could invent themselves and thrive. To do this, I had to learn more about my employees. What motivated each of them? What parts of their job did love? Hate? What were their personality styles? What caused them to step up and take on new challenges or the opposite, retreat? At what did they excel and when did they underperform? What would be the perfect role? Over the last 9 years, I have been able to train myself to see the talents of others and ask the right questions to reveal fears, desires, talents, capabilities, motivations, and weaknesses.
With this knowledge I can then either tweak or create new roles that fit their unique set of talents and better guide them as they grow in their careers. This has not only led to new opportunities within the organization, but we have happier, more engaged employees who enjoy their jobs because they get to do what they are good at every day. Engaged employees help to cultivate positive culture and it’s well known that great workplace cultures lead to higher productivity and retention. Here’s a great HBR article with a lot of data on the subject.
I am a big believer in designing roles for my employees, especially those who have high potential and demonstrate the desire to grow personally and professionally. I have seen how powerful it can be when a person who is highly capable but under performing due to a talent-job mismatch is moved into the right position. Over and over, it has made a profound impact on the company’s performance and the employee is happier because he or she is thriving, motivated, engaged, and doing tasks that are enjoyable….well on the way to rock stardom.
All of this sounds great, right? But how do you do it? How do you deeply understand your employees and position them in the right roles? Here are some of the things I do:
It takes time, commitment, and some trial and error to really get to know your employees, especially in the context of true strengths. I’ve had great success in developing employees by modifying and creating roles…but also some failures. I have become too emotionally invested in helping struggling employees find the right roles within the organization. It’s painful on both sides when it’s time to admit that there just isn’t a fit that mutually works. But the time, energy, and emotion spent is worth it. Having engaged and happy employees in roles that play off their strengths and talents makes the employee, organization, and you better. I believe there is no worthier use of my time than spending it to sincerely understand and appreciate the strengths and talents of my team, helping them to become rock stars.
Thank you for reading and comments, likes (you can click on the buttons below) and shares are always appreciated.
A Quick Blurb on what this blog is about.
Welcome to my blog! My name is Kerry Siggins and plain speaking, honest leadership is my mantra. My intention is to help those who lead (or want to lead) become better at saying and doing what needs to be said and done in a way that it can be heard and seen, one person at a time.