Let’s be honest: operational management – middle management – is hard. Based on the hundreds (possibly thousands) of conversations I’ve had with leaders and middle managers, one of the key challenges is managing up, down, and across the organization. From juggling the demands of senior leadership, to moving work forward alongside your colleagues in other departments, to keeping your team motivated, it’s not a mystery as to why middle managers often feel overwhelmed or exhausted.  In this blog post, I’m going to talk specifically about managing up, down, and across, and I’ll share some tips to help you navigate these often murky waters like a pro. 

The Middle Manager’s Dilemma

Being in the middle isn’t easy. You’re sandwiched between the expectations of senior leadership, the needs of your colleagues, and the demands of your own team. It’s a juggling act, for sure. And this juggling act comes with a twist – it’s as though you’re juggling three distinctly different things. Each of these three stakeholders (senior leaders, colleagues, and your team members) need very different information and support.

Managing Up: Maintaining the Strategic Big-Picture While Sharing Operational Insights

When it comes to managing up, it’s all about striking the right balance. You need to keep senior leaders in the loop while also providing valuable insights from the lived experience of your team on the “front line.” Here’s how you can ace this balancing act:

  • Level Setting and Communication: Keep senior leaders informed about the progress and challenges your team faces. Be transparent about what’s working and what isn’t. Share information in a timely way (especially challenges and risks) rather than at the 11th hour, and your plans to overcome those challenges and risks.
  • Providing Solutions, Not Just Problems: Don’t just dump problems on your boss’s desk; come armed with potential solutions. Show that you’re proactive and solution-oriented, and not expecting your boss to take on the full mental load. If it’s a challenge or problem you’ve never faced before – or you don’t know where to start – be honest with your boss. Let them know you need mentorship and help structuring the problem. 
  • Big Picture vs. Details: Understand the larger company vision, but don’t lose sight of the nitty-gritty details. Find ways to connect the dots between the big picture and day-to-day operations. In this way, you can provide valuable operational insight about how products, processes and services can be improved and refined. You are in a unique position to analyze operational realities and inform the continuous improvement loop.

Managing Across: From Silos to Alignment 

Managing across departments can be one of the biggest challenges. Corporate values like “Collaboration,” “Teamwork is Dreamwork”, and “One Team,” (or some version of these) are popular. In fact, I have yet to come across an organization that doesn’t list collaboration as a value in some form. The issue is operationalizing this value. Too often, teams get busy owning their piece of the work, and fail to align, communicate and check in on progress, timelines and challenges in a timely and productive way. Here’s how you can foster alignment with your cross-departmental colleagues and break down silos:

  • Build Relationships: Take the time to get to know your colleagues from other departments. It’s so much easier to navigate challenges, talk about risks, and negotiate timelines and responsibilities when you know (and respect) each other personally. Trust and respect are both built by investing time in the relationship.
  • Communicate Effectively: Clearly communicate your goals and expectations, and be open to feedback from other departments. Emphasis on “open to feedback”. Going in with a firm agenda doesn’t foster effective collaboration; it pits you against one another. Instead, create space to share your perspectives, and aligning on a plan. Effective, timely, two-way communication is the key to avoiding misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Shared Responsibility for Organizational Success: Recognize that what’s good for one department may not be easy or ideal for another. Come to the table with what I call your “best-for-business hat” and be ready to look at the issue through an objective lens. Look for solutions that benefit the entire organization, not just your own team.

Managing Down: Inspiring Your Team to Greatness

Leading a team is one of the greatest professional responsibilities and one, I hope, you take seriously. As people leaders, we have a direct impact on the mental, emotional and financial lives of our team members. Here’s how you can be the leader your team deserves:

  • Provide Clarity and Direction: Set clear goals and expectations for your team, and provide them with the support and resources they need to succeed. Have a process for checking in, answering questions, and providing timely, specific feedback along the way.
  • Lead by Example: Be the kind of leader you’d want to follow. Demonstrate integrity, resilience, and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and work through issues and challenges. Recognize achievements, celebrate successes, and build in time for rest and restoration.
  • Self-management: Look for ways to deepen your self-awareness. Whether it’s a 360 assessment process, feedback from your team, a personality assessment of your choice, or working with a coach or mentor. Get clear on your strengths and your areas of challenge. Cultivate strategies for managing your stressors and trigger points so that you don’t inadvertently take it out on the team.

Being a middle manager certainly has its challenges, but it can also be one of the most rewarding roles as you are the bridge between strategy and execution. With the right mindset, tools and approach, you can rise to the challenge. By focusing on the three relationships I’ve talked about here, you’ll set yourself up to not only survive but thrive in your role. 

Stephanie Woodward is a leadership consultant, executive coach, and facilitator supporting leaders and teams navigate the new world of work successfully by finding their sweet spot of great results, optimal well-being and personal fulfillment. Learn more about her programs at www.agencytochange.com

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