Empowering and Engaging Mid-Level Leaders

A few weeks back, I met my friend (who is also a coach) for lunch where we exchanged our coaching experiences. Our topic gradually moved towards increasingly unhappy and discontent employees who also happened to be managers. These weren’t your eager and new managers, or those at the executive level, but the ones caught in the middle. At least over 70% of these managers in question were those who grew up the ranks through their commitment and high performance in their companies. Incidentally, they also happened to be those “loyal” employees who gave some of their best years and (tenure) to their companies. Here are some of the common challenges these middle managers shared during our coaching sessions. (Of course we never share our clients’ information, but only share common observations and statistics.)

“I’m caught in a rut and don’t find my job exciting anymore.”

“I’m the King of Approvals. After being a technical innovator for 10 years, all that I do is check and approve documents.”

“I’m a referee arbitrating petty disputes and conflicts within the team because our communication system sucks.”

“I attend boring meetings where everyone talks but no one decides.”

“I have no power to execute big ideas or make high impactful decisions. I was happier at the trenches. At least I could add value.”

“Change management? I’m the checklist queen! All that I do is follow up, follow up, and more follow up!”

“I am the bearer of bad news. I hate appraisal time!”

“Our top management is busy attending conferences and leadership summits, and has no time for us. Heck! They don’t even share with us what they discussed in those meetings!”

“Help! I’m trapped in a toxic shark infested sea where politics rules!”

We also observed that a majority of these concerns were voiced by people working for large companies with handsome salaries.

The hazy level

According to a recent survey conducted by Forbes, middle managers typically constitute 5% of the unhappy/disengaged workforce population. Now why should we even bother about a paltry 5%? That is because these are the people who manage bulk of the remaining workforce that comprises junior level managers and front-line team players, most of who interact directly with our customers.

If we look at this whole situation logically, a company’s top line is maintained through its marketing and revenue. While the top management drives these strategically and externally, the frontline management executes the day-to-day sales and services operations at an internal tactical level. Both these roles being very clear and well-defined, the middle management layer remains one of the haziest and fuzziest. A case in example is the key performance indicators (KPI) for top and front-line management performance. They are clear-cut and visible. What about the middle management? What are they clearly accountable for?

When we throw in the global and matrix organizational structure into this mix, the middle management is cornered between a rock and a hard place in a no-man(ager)’s land!

A middle manager’s role is pretty indirect. Not only does a middle manager report to another manager, they also have managers reporting to them. While a frontline manager has a mix of inexperienced and fairly experienced team members, and goes through a myriad of basic leadership training programs, a middle manager already has a seasoned bunch of leaders reporting into him or her. Unlike a frontline manager who has her calendar packed to the full with meetings, reviews, and reports, most middle managers barely have a concrete agenda (unless they have newbie managers who need their hand held through their initial startup period.) This is truly the dilemma of the middle manager as nicely articulated in this article.

Breeding ground for discontentment

If enthusiasm is contagious, discontentment is an epidemic! Imagine middle managers coming to work day in and day out in this state of mind. Their enthusiasm diminishes, their energy levels deplete, and over a period of time, there’s a toxic buildup of negativity that eventually gets transmitted by them (knowingly or unknowingly) to their subordinates, teams, and colleagues. What’s one of the biggest reasons for employee disengagement? Bad bosses. So now you know.

The real role of a Mid-level Leader

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention for a middle manager in most organizations is that they barely get a leadership role. After spending a minimum of 10 to 15 years of their career, all that they seem to be doing is giving approvals, attending meetings, signing forms, following up on top management mandates, mediating in discussions, moderating compensation proposals amongst others. All of these are mere tasks with little scope for leadership. So what are we missing here?

The middle layer actually acts as a channel between the strategic and tactical levels of the organization. Where the top level defines the strategy and high level objectives, the middle layer has to make it happen through the lower layers in the form of concrete goals and action plans. A mid-level leader is actually 4 roles of leadership all played by one person.

  • Change Management Champion—For companies to grow in size and adapt to the external market dynamics, they need to constantly keep evolving, creating, and changing. Here’s where mid-level leaders can take ownership by demystifying the HOWs of the change, and converting them into tangible sets of WHENs by working closely with their frontline leadership. As champions of change they would also need to kick-start and mobilize new projects and processes and see them through completion across the span of different teams under their supervision.
  • Collaboration and Cross-functional Facilitator—Matrix structures are a necessity in today’s complex multicultural work environments. Mid-level managers can help break interdepartmental silos by making cross-functional teams work together, besides keeping a bird’s eye view on the larger scheme of things. As collaborators, they also need to ensure their teams are not encumbered by red tape and naysayers.
  • Culture Evangelist—A frontline leader’s role by definition is all about keeping a close eye on the money and operations side of things. However a mid-level leader can focus on people through skip-level meetings, monthly group meetings to recognize good workers and share the bigger picture, besides planning activities to promote a better work environment. A mid-level leader could also address his group during crisis proactively to bolster their spirits and offer them encouragement.
  • Coach and Mentor—Another huge reason for employee dissatisfaction is lack of visible growth opportunities in the horizon. Succession planning is one of the key responsibilities of a mid-level leader. In fact I believe it should be the responsibility (and KPI) of every manager in a company to identify their high potential staff and build a succession plan in collaboration with HR. Mid-level managers would be the best kind of coaches and mentors to make that happen.

Strengthening the Middle

While top management is the head (and brains) of the organization and frontline level the limbs, the middle level leadership is the heart and core. If an organization wants to gear itself up to meet the market demands of customer service, technology, and innovation, they would need to empower their mid-level leaders with necessary resources, and motivate them to fulfil all four roles effectively. If mid-level leaders are expected to plan their succession, then it is top management’s responsibility to do the same and coach and mentor their mid-level staff. Ultimately, the heart and core need to be strengthened and nourished for the limbs and brain to survive!

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