Managing from the Middle
So you've leveled up from entry- to mid-level. Congratulations! But somehow you still don't feel like a manager... Middle management - or the "messy middle" puts you into a position of constantly shape shifting, managing upstream relationships as well as downstream and wandering from leadership to execution and back again.
Psychologically, it's really challenging to switch gears constantly throughout the day.
And if you're thinking there are added complications in this time of your career - you aren't alone. Most folks are stepping into middle management roles at the exact same time that their personal life is hitting high gear - whether that's forming partnerships, having children, or caring for aging parents. One study found that 30% of respondents felt that “family obligations” were why women got stuck in middle management, leading to fewer women in senior leadership roles.
According to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, women consistently rated their performance on a test lower than did men - where men on average rated themselves a 61 out of 100, women gave themselves a 46 out of 100.
The personal pressures plus a tendency to underrate their performance can make it so that women constantly feel like they are coming up short as managers. Learning how to be an effective middle manager means caring for your whole self at the office and using a holistic management style: We have to learn to be a good manager, good colleague, and good support to senior leadership. Here are a handful of tips to support you in that journey.
Be proactive about delegation.
Often, we find ourselves in management roles because we were so good at doing the work. But in today's competitive workforce and busy schedule, we have to think about how not to do it all ourselves. That means thinking a step ahead. How do you make it clear to your superiors that you've got the stuff to get promoted further on the leadership pipeline? We have to be proactive about the projects that we've been assigned, navigating what is a must-do for you and getting to know what your team can handle and excel at managing.
I remember early in my career completing the StrengthsFinder and finding out that I'm a very strategic minded person. I also experience a lot of anxiety. My manager at the time wanted me to focus on providing training and engaging lots of people, which was very contrary to my strengths. Understanding that wasn't my strength, we were able to work together to find something better suited to my strengths and interests.
By figuring out what is most meaningful for your managers - you'll learn how to be viewed as indispensable. At the same time, knowing where your team members are most suited to succeed gives you the tools to excel as a group to deliver for your upper management.
Create space (and boundaries) for feedback.
Growing as a leader means holding steady water for your colleagues and your staff to provide honest (and sometime painful) feedback. There are very few companies that offer management training, so don't feel weird if you suddenly feel out of your depth. But without feedback from the people you manage, you'll have no way of knowing what methods are working and what isn't.
Making space for honest and open sharing means preparing yourself to be vulnerable. Practice journaling or meditation to prepare to accept information without a strong reaction in the moment. At the same time, identify what areas may be triggering to you (such as microaggressions or call-outs that strike at your core values), and make space for yourself to be honest with how those areas make you feel.
This is an area where we can borrow from the way we communicate at home with our loved ones. To create a nurturing environment, we find ways to speak comfortably together and create the space to express views in compassionate ways.
Build authentic relationships.
There's this really great quote from Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient that speaks wonders here:
Being a colleague that someone can rely on not only makes you a stronger teammate, but also a better person.
Authentic relationship development means learning from your colleagues values and goals and helping everyone's jobs, lives, and ambitious run as smoothly as possible. Those authentic connections go beyond the transactional quid pro quo relationship to truly understand where each other are coming from and what they hope to achieve.
This is true beyond your peer relationships as well - better to help a subordinate succeed on a different team or a different organization than to keep a suffering and unhappy employee in your team. This kind of relationship doesn't happen immediately and it doesn't happen without intentionality. Intentionality of approaching your work relationships as whole human beings who have goals, concerns, and hopes beyond the project placed in front of you.
If the thought of doing all this leaves you feeling a bit overwhelmed, you aren't the only one. That's part of why we put together the Emerging Leaders Accelerator - a program specifically for first-time or developing managers in the international development sector. Check it out if you find yourself continuing to struggle to manage in 360-degrees.