By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
One of the hardest places to be, career-wise, is the dreaded middle: responsible for people, projects, and outcomes, and responsible to other people’s leadership, vision, and authority. It can feel like trying to run through quicksand: you’re churning through a bunch of effort and energy, and seemingly getting nowhere. Often these roles come with little or no recognition, high stress, and big burnout. They are necessary positions as you move through your career, but at the same time they can be pretty de-motivating. So what is the secret to successfully managing from the middle, and ensuring that this is a career-enhancing, not a career-ending role?
Here are 8 tips for successfully managing from the middle.
Ask for direction. One of your primary duties as a manager is to get clear on expectations. Ask your manager for specifics on goals, deadlines, process and procedure, and how the work ties into the overarching vision and mission of the organization. The people who work for you are expecting you to give them clarity on their roles and duties, which means that you have to be clear on expectations and direction.
Communicate. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communicate up, communicate across, communicate down. Nobody has ever done a better job by having less information. Until he or she tells you that he or she doesn’t need it, overshare your process with your boss, and ask for feedback. Share your team’s accomplishments with your peers and colleagues, and ask for feedback. Give your team the information that they need to do their jobs well, and ask for feedback.
Own the process. Never ever say, “This is what leadership is telling us to do,” or “I don’t know why we’re doing this, we just are,” or anything else along those lines that defers responsibility to someone above you. If you truly don’t know why, then go back to step one and ask for direction. And whether you agree with it or not, recognize that your job is to motivate your team and to own the process. If you truly do not agree with and cannot support the direction the organization is going, then you need to do some real soul-searching about your future there.
Be a team developer. Your people aren’t just looking to you for metrics and deadlines. They want to know that you care about them as people, that you’re invested in their growth and development, and that you want to support their careers. This means you have to get to know them, as individuals, and learn about their individual strengths and interests. Help them to set goals, and connect the work to their individual motivations. This is how you keep people engaged, which leads to higher performance both for them and for you.
Set goals. While you are helping your people to set goals, make sure that you are setting some goals of your own. What do you want to learn from this management role? What specific skills and abilities do you want to add to your resume? How do you see this role positioning you for the future? These are all questions you should ask of yourself every six months. If possible, share them with your manager, and make them part of your developmental process.
Find a mentor. Find someone, or someones, who can mentor and coach you through this experience. Look for someone who you respect for their management acumen, who is willing to meet with you on a regular basis to discuss challenges and strategies in a confidential space. No one expects you to know how to do this right out of the gate. Look for people with more experience than you, and more wisdom than you, to help you to achieve your goals.
Reframe the role. It can feel like middle management is the worst place to be in the organizational chart, but the reality is that everyone is managing from the middle. Everyone has a boss. Those at the top report to a board, and those at the bottom report most directly to the client. So this isn’t just a position to “get through,” onto better things. These are skills for every rung of the organizational ladder.
Get clear on who’s boss. Finally, it’s important to get clear on who you are working for, and who signs your paycheck. It can be easy, in these positions, to gripe about how decisions get made, to complain about how unfair things are, or to wonder why you’re doing all of the work while your boss seems to sit around and take all of the credit for it. That may be true, and they still are your boss. Your job is to make your manager look as good as possible. Just because someone is in a management position, doesn’t mean that he or she is any good at management. And remember, you always have a choice: to stay or to go.