With Martin G. Moore

Episode #74

The Curse of the Middle Manager: All Pain, No Glory?

Middle management roles are sometimes the toughest of any role in an organisation. However, if you have the right mindset and perspective, it is also the place where your leadership career is forged.

If you have already passed through middle management ranks, this is an opportunity to once again put yourself in a middle managers’ shoes.

If you are living the middle management dream right now, I have some tips that will hopefully help you to navigate the choppy waters ahead.

In this episode, I get really specific about the divergences between senior management and the workforce, that tend to strand a middle manager in between (with some practical suggestions, of course, for how to handle it).

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Episode #74 The Curse of the Middle Manager: All Pain, No Glory?

Welcome to Episode 74 of the No Bullshit Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, The Curse of the Middle Manager: All pain, no glory? This week’s episode is in response to a question from our listener, Frank. He says, being a middle manager feels lonely a lot of the time. You don’t get a lot of positive feedback from above and you have to have a lot of hard conversations with people below. How do you stay motivated? How do you know if you’re doing a good job? How do you keep believing that you’re on track and developing when it seems you have a lot of haters?

Great questions, Frank. Middle management roles are sometimes the toughest of any role in an organisation. However, if you have the right mindset and perspective, it’s also the place where your leadership career is forged. It can be especially difficult in industrial businesses and union driven cultures and holding the course of strong leadership tests even the most resilient individual’s commitment. If you’ve already passed through middle management ranks, try to put yourself in the middle managers shoes, listen carefully to this episode and develop some empathy for their position. It will make you a better leader for them. But if you’re living the middle management dream right now, I have some tips that will hopefully help you to navigate the choppy waters ahead. So I’ll start by painting a stark example to demonstrate the pressures that can commonly affect a middle manager. We’ll explore some ways that the sins of upper management are visited upon the middle layers in any type of organisation. And we’ll finish by talking about how middle managers can balance the competing demands of the leaders above and the teams below.

Just a very quick reminder before we start that registrations for our Leadership Beyond the Theory program close in a couple of days and we started the program next Monday. If you’re considering joining the cohort to take your confidence, capability and performance as a leader to the next level, get onto it by visiting www.yourceomentor.com.

I want to dedicate this episode to Professor Clay Christensen. For those of you who don’t know him, he was an academic, widely regarded as the founder of innovation theory as we know it today, and the author of the 1997 classic, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’. This became required reading in business schools and boardrooms alike. Unfortunately, Clay passed away just last week, way too young at the age of 67 as a result of complications from his longterm illnesses. I had the privilege to spend a little quality time with him when I was at Harvard Business School in 2007. Not only was he clearly a genius in his ability to see and articulate the drivers of disruption in business, but he was also incredibly humble, generous, and had a cracking sense of humour to boot. He will be sorely missed and if any of you are yet to read his iconic book, you should do so. Make it a staple for assessing any business endeavour that you think you might want to undertake. So let’s get into it.

Let’s launch straight into an example of the pressures that can commonly affect a middle manager. This is a composite of three or four real life examples I’ve encountered. They’re not embellished in any way, but I’ve taken some of the facts from the more extreme cases. It’s not a typical, but of course many industries, professions and contexts aren’t as extreme as this. However, I want you to think about the implications of these common elements, even if it’s not a familiar scenario for you. I also apologise in advance for the fact that a few parts of the example may seem to support very traditional role models and patriarchal behaviours, but this is common in these types of cases.

So you get a job as a manager in a mining company and you need to relocate to base yourself at the mine site, which is in a remote area. It could be any country, Australia, Indonesia, the US Argentina, doesn’t matter. So you pack up and move to your new location with your wife and young children. A town that’s basically built around the mine. Now the people in the town either work at the mine or they provide the services that the mine and the community need. So you have teachers, doctors, retail owners, restaurateurs, hotel owners, and a host of others. Initially you’re welcomed as part of the community. People are lovely inviting you into their homes for Saturday afternoon barbecues and kids’ birthday parties. Everything’s going pretty well, but then as you start to become more familiar with the team, you realise that it’s productivity, quality of workmanship and general performance leaves a lot to be desired. At the same time, the business appoints a new Chief Executive. Now for arguments sake, let’s just call him Marty.

Marty pretty quickly sizes up the company and each individual mine site that it owns. He sees the squeeze on global commodity prices and the urgent need to reduce the cost of getting the product to market. So Marty sets about creating a program to improve the culture and performance of the organisation, driven from the top and implemented by his executives, including the executive responsible for operations. For argument’s sake, let’s just call her Louise. Marty starts by outlining very clearly why the change is needed. Obviously the changes for the sustainability of the business and its ability to remain competitive. In an industry where you’re a price taker, which means you don’t get the opportunity to set the price for your product, it’s a commodity, efficiency is critical to longterm survival and part of this efficiency is about the quality of the physical resource and the equipment deployed to mine it, but equally, a lot depends on the performance of the who are there to plan, operate and maintain the mine.

So Louise starts working with Marty to come up with a plan for improving the efficiency of all of the company’s assets, including of course your mine. This requires some significant changes to the way things are done at the front line. Productivity has to increase and costs have to go down. You as a manager have three supervisors reporting to you who each have a team of workers. When Louise sends the message down and start to relating the plan to you and your boss. So we’d say that’s probably a site General Manager, you have to implement based on a rough set of parameters that only you can operationalize. So what do you do? Well, first things first, what are the easiest things to attack to compress costs immediately? I know little reduce over time, stop all of the training we do except the stuff that’s actually required so that we can comply with the law and reduce the use of contractors and external consultants.

These are the obvious things to attack and that might get a short term result, but your people are not going to be happy with any of those changes. So you try to sell them on the benefits of the change, the longterm competitiveness of the mine, the ability to extend its operating life so that employment is not threatened in the future. Make sense? Right? But your people are likely to have a very different longterm vision than you, Louise or Marty do. Your teams, including their supervisors, are likely be thinking something along these lines. “If we start to give up our sacred cows now, so overtime payments, our early knock off times, lack of management oversight, etc. this is the thin edge of the wedge. But we’re bringing our kids up in this town and we don’t want to have to relocate to another mine and uproot our social network. What’s the obvious option for us to take? We need to do everything we possibly can to subvert the changes.”

Now this subversion can come in many forms. It is at least a case of trying to prove that “that won’t work here boss”, and this comes in the form of passive aggressive resistance. So, for example, blue flu as we call it, that’s taking sick days off to withdraw labour without actually taking strike action. And that happens at the company’s expense. Neglecting key operational tasks that cause interruptions to production, raising disputes that are designed for no other purpose than to distract management from the task at hand and keep them busy over here fighting a fight that they can’t win. But even this can often be far more insidious. You as a middle manager can become the focal point for the rage of the workforce. All of a sudden your wife has no longer invited to share a glass of Chardonnay at one of the other parent’s places after the school pickup.

She’s occasionally shopping at the local supermarket only to hear verbal abuse thrown at her from across the aisle, by the wives of your team members. And as a couple, you’re socially ostracised and isolated. You learn over time that your children are being bullied at school by some of your team members, children. And believe me, these kids are taught how to bully properly and yes, occasionally you go to your car in the morning to find it’s been vandalised, again. I know of one leader who fortunately transitioned to more senior ranks eventually who moved house four times in three years to escape this bullying and harassment. Now this might be an extreme example, but it goes to show how severe the pressure on middle management can be from both ends and the leadership above them has to understand and recognise this if they are going to in any way assist in the implementation of positive change in that part of the business. But if you’ve only ever worked in a profession or white collar industry, this might seem outlandish or unbelievable, but believe me, it happens more often than not when driving culture change in these types of businesses. As a middle manager, you can imagine how great the temptation is to fold under this pressure and to spend your time trying to work out how to accommodate both masters: the leaders above you and the teams below you

Many senior leaders make it unnecessarily difficult for their middle managers because they just simply don’t think enough about the impact that they’re having. And if you spoke to any senior leader, they will tell you they are very mindful of the pressures that their middle management layers have to face and that they are careful to make sure that they help them avoid any issues. I’m a supportive leader, right? Well here’s just a couple of the things they tend to do without even realising it. So the first one is, not backing your lower layers of leadership when push comes to shove. So for example, if a middle managers decides that someone needs to be sacked to clean up a team or to improve the culture and you decide not to support that sacking, for whatever reason, and we’re going to talk about this a little bit later, that is an example of not backing them when push comes to shove.

Make no mistake if you do the right thing as a middle manager, the senior leadership will have plenty of opportunity to test their real appetite for change. Another way senior leaders can make life difficult is through setting unreasonable or irrational demands. So this includes under resourcing or not taking into account local factors when making change, for example, not allowing sufficient time to implement and consolidate new objectives, standards or behaviours. Another way is through not providing clarity of objectives, and this is just so common. It’s often felt through setting too many competing priorities and not giving your people clarity about what the key big ticket items are that they need to execute on. One of the greatest sins of senior leadership is just simply not understanding the struggles that a middle manager has on site. And if you spend too much time in the air conditioned office and not enough time talking to the people who are actually getting the work done on the ground, you’re going to be in trouble.

Another classic that I see all the time is senior leaders stepping in over the top of their middle managers with overriding decisions. So instead of letting them decide how to execute something locally, they come in over the top with things that don’t necessarily even fit the context which can be different from location to location and team to team. One of the most damaging behaviours of senior leaders though is not demanding that the leadership below them right through to the front line picks a side. And although I don’t particularly like the concept of picking a side, it does just articulate the fact that you’re going to have competing demands from the teams below you and from the leaders above you.

How do middle managers balance the often competing demands of upper leadership and the teams they lead? Okay. Let’s get a simple formula of how to navigate these scenarios as a middle manager. I’ve got four points here for you to focus on to kick this off and to integrate with other No Bullsh!t Leadership podcasts to help navigate this maze.

Number one, pick a side. As I said, I don’t like this terminology, but it’s important to realise that there isn’t always going to be alignment between the executive and board of an organisation and the frontline workers, and this is particularly true at times of significant change. The Holy Grail of leadership is alignment of an organisation from top to bottom. If you don’t pick a side, your life will be completely miserable as you try to unsuccessfully bridge that divide and you will fail both stakeholder groups. If you try to keep everyone happy, I can bet you that no one will be happy.

Here’s where you have a choice. You either accept that the challenges come with the territory of your position or you step out and seek a less demanding job. Now, that may mean sacrificing some financial benefits. It may mean sacrificing some status or prestige. It may mean abandoning your previous career path in favour of another. However, if you’re going to do the job fully and competently, you will hate every minute of it and you won’t perform well. I think better not to embark on a futile quest, if you know you don’t have the stomach for it. Too many leaders kid themselves that they’re doing the right thing by trying to seek accommodation and compromise with their teams, but the team will never be a high performing team and you will never come to the attention of upper management. Well, not in a good way in any case.

If you choose to take the role, you actually need to accept the mantle that comes with being in that leadership position. It is often a thankless task, you know that. There are difficulties that will thoroughly test your resilience, but nonetheless, you’re there to do a job and that job in any leadership position is to act upon to the best of your ability, the objectives and direction of the business as defined by the board and executive team. Is it easy? Hell no! If you could make that choice though, both intellectually and emotionally, it will be the foundation for everything else you do. You make that choice once and once only. You don’t have to keep revisiting it and choose over and over again each time an issue arises that might cause conflict between the leadership imperative and the entrenched behaviours of your team members.

You already know what going to do because you made that choice when you took the role on initially. If you do this and live to tell the tale, it is the making of you as a great leader who ultimately wins the respect of your people, creates a high performance culture and is marked as promotable, and this is irrespective of what support you actually get from the leaders above you. But if you accepted the outset that it’s not going to be particularly easy, the best thing you can do is to get a network of likeminded leaders around you, mentors in place at some points and make sure that you have enough of the right information coming through to you and enough the right support that you can get yourself through this very, very difficult phase of your leadership career.

Point number two, read the play. Now having said that, you’re there to execute the will of the organisations, board and executive, you need to work out how serious they really are. This might sound silly, but lots of senior leaders will ask for things that they’re not actually committed to backing. When push comes to shove, they write checks with their mouths that they can’t cash with their feet. Here’s an example. You’ve been told you need to change the performance of your team. You have a particularly troublesome supervisor who’s undermining you and supporting a covert rebellion with his team members. So you decide he needs to be replaced, if you’re to have any chance of success. You engage your HR team to help you exit the person from the organisation for performance reasons and when this flows up the line and maybe gets up as far as Louise even, you find out whether the leaders have the stomach to actually execute on the performance changes they’re asking you to make.

If you are one of these senior leaders who talks a good game but doesn’t support your leaders below, when the going gets tough, you need to have a really good think about this. And of course you’ll have ways to rationalise the decision. For example, “We’re about to negotiate a new employment agreement with the workforce, so we have to pick our battles.” It’s just an excuse. It completely kills trust in the leaders below you, and middle managers could be forgiven for being confused and disheartened. Now, as a middle manager, you need to respond to this in a couple of different ways that I’ll get to shortly, but just realise that not everything you’re told from above will be supported as it should and you have to act accordingly. It’s really important to work out which are the impossible impasses that you need to go around.

Number three, communicate upwards with extreme clarity. This can be tricky because sometimes the upper echelons of an organisation simply don’t want these inconsistencies pointed out to them. There have been times in my career where I’ve been labelled as a troublemaker purely because I’ve pointed out in a respectful and rational manner, some of the inconvenient truths about the incongruence between the words and the actions of those above me. If we look at the example we just covered off, this is the sort of thing where the impact needs to be made clear to the senior level leaders. And if there’s an important issue that will potentially have a material impact on your ability to deliver the outcomes you’ve signed up to make sure you put it in writing. Explain how the lack of support or any other reason, might scuttle the change plans as they’re currently laid out. Always be really clear that your job is to execute the will of the senior leadership, but it’s also your obligation to point out a problem if you can see the issues that they can’t. But always give the courtesy that says, ‘These decisions are your prerogative, but we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.’ In most cases. This will distinguish you as a future leader who can join the dots and get results while keeping the chain of command well informed about the progress of any initiative.

Finally, number four, establish the standard. For your team, you need to make a new standard very, very clear. First and foremost, they’ve got to know that not changing is not an option. This new standard is not optional, and choosing not to meet the standard will have consequences for those who make that choice. We’d love everyone to come along on this change, but history and experience tell us that this simply won’t happen. Now, if you think you’ve ever done that and brought a whole team along with no dissenters, I would suggest that you may have turned a blind eye or rationalised in your own head why someone was meeting the standard when they absolutely weren’t.

Remember, weak leaders drop the standard to meet the performance. Strong leaders lift the performance to meet the standard. There are a couple of past episodes of No Bullshit Leadership that you might find particularly useful here. So first of all, Episode 56 ‘Dealing with Change Resistance: You will have to shoot a hostage’ and Episode 57 ‘Challenge coach and confront’ which talks about the toolkit you need at any level to pull this off confidently.

Being a middle manager can be really tough. It’s thankless and sometimes personally debilitating, but it’s also where your resilience, ingenuity and leadership IQ is forged. If you make the choice to be a middle manager, remember, it’s an essential step in becoming a strong and competent leader and just try to enjoy the journey. Even the tough bits. Nothing will tell you whether your leadership ambitions are right for you faster than spending some time in the middle management cauldron.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 74 thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please spread the word about No Bullshit Leadership in your leadership community. I look forward to next week’s episode, The Family Affair: Making founder led businesses work.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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