So, you’ve just landed that promotion to middle manager level? But how does this role differ from a Supervisor’s role, and what entails ‘leading from the front’?
What are you expected to do? What does best practice look like as a middle manager?
Let’s start with the basics:
What’s a Middle Manager? A middle manager is a manager who’s position falls between lower level supervision, and the senior management level. A middle manager can often be a functional manager in charge of a department, and reports to a senior manager. The middle manager has supervisors or junior level managers that report into them, and often acts as the conduit for communication and strategy, between senior management and the lower levels.
There are things to get right and mistakes to avoid as a middle manager. Here’s the low down of what to do and what not to do.
The Biggest Mistake – Getting “Leading From the Front” Wrong
We’ve all heard the term, “leading from the front.” But it can often be misinterpreted. A lot of middle managers believe that leading from the front means that they have to work alongside their team members.
They then get bogged down in the details, working in the processes that their team members are working on as well; they often micromanage and believe that they are managing their people by doing the work.
You’ll see this when a middle manager picks a job in a warehouse, or helps assemble the product in an assembly area. You could also see this when a middle manager processes a quote or any other key process that another member of the team should be doing.
Getting involved in ‘processing’ is a mistake because you’re not managing or leading effectively. You are working in the process.
This often leads to a feeling of chaos – there’s not enough time in the day for you, and you’re always reactive:
- Micromanaging the detail within the process
- Reacting to team members’ problems – you’ll have a lot of them to deal with; if you do things for people, they will rely on you time and again to keep making decisions for them
- Reacting to customer problems and complaints from other departments
- Responding to requirements from senior management
You also have to fit in your middle manager reporting duties to senior management, too.
You’ll soon be working in a high pressure environment, where you feel pulled from pillar to post.
Leading From the Front; the Right Way
Leading the right way means to work on the process, rather than in it.
This means that instead of getting bogged down in the details, you manage your people by managing the process.
- How is the team performing to plan?
- Where in the process does it need more support (labour / skills, etc)?
- Does everyone know what the goals are today and what success looks like?
- What actions need to be completed today to support the team in achieving their goals?
- What lessons can be learned from yesterday?
- How are people feeling?
- Who can I coach right now, to help develop them in their role?
The above are very important questions to go from working in the process to working on it and leading from the front in the right way.
A good middle manager ensures they are answering them everyday.
One way of looking at the middle manager role is to think about the term leadership and management.
‘Natural’ leaders don’t have to be good managers to be effective. Whereas, every manager has to be an effective leader.
You may be given a management title, but you must earn a leadership role.
Leaders have the following attributes:
- Leaders have followers – and without trust, support and the feeling that they can rely on the leader, there is no leadership
- Leaders have a vision – they have a clear and exciting idea of how to achieve it. They work with their team to make it a reality.
- Leaders communicate – they spend a vast proportion of their time talking, coaching, sharing ideas and asking for feedback. They are honest, open, and positive.
- Leaders empower their teams – they give their staff the room, confidence and ability to get the job done
Tools to Help You Lead From the Front
To help you be able to step back and stay in control, you’ll need some effective tools of the trade. Here are some of the main tools in the middle manager’s armoury:
- A team board and stand up meetings – This is often a simple whiteboard, where the team updates their metrics, team tasks, and daily actions to define what targets there are today, who’s doing what and issues that need to be fixed. It’s owned by the team and supported by you.
- The Process Perspective – the good middle manager thinks in terms of processes. There’s a no blame culture when things go wrong. It’s merely a question of asking where did the process fail? In the grand scheme of continuous improvement, it’s just a case of fixing the process so it doesn’t happen again.
- Coaching – The ability to coach and develop people through good questioning, is a critical element of good leadership. Practice walking around and engaging in constructive coaching chats, to help your team work things out. This prevents you from being the rescuer and taking on too many tasks.
- A problem solving mindset – constantly challenging things in a constructive way is also a great skill to have. When things go wrong, then it’s a case of fixing things so they don’t come back. Often managers stick band-aids over problems. This approach only allows you to create a work around. Sooner or later, the same issues will come back. The effective middle manager focuses on implementing a problem solving process, so problems are fixed at the source and don’t return.
Lead By Example
A large portion of leading from the front is about leading by example.
Leading by example ensures that you lead with the values you ask your teams to work to. And you do it every day; even on a bad day.
Even when you don’t have the time or focus, you must still act in the way that you expect of your team. They are constantly observing you and your actions, and if you do something different than what you say, you’ll lose respect. It’s a sure fire way of disengaging your employees and losing trust.
Leading from the front also means that you help the team set their daily goals, provide support when they need it, challenge thinking, and help them identify issues and improvement ideas, as you go.
Your job is to ensure that the team knows what they are doing, and that the processes are working effectively to meet the goals.
Your Middle Manager Action List
Step 1: Understand that Leadership Differs From Management
You have to both lead and manage – with a large emphasis on leading your team. Understanding the difference will help you identify and isolate the things you need to improve upon.
Realise that you will have to manage, which in summary, consists of doing some administrative tasks, ensuring the right skills are in the right place, and systems and procedures are being followed, as well as processes and policies are being followed.
The large portion of your time is to lead, which entails the pointers we’ve discussed already like coaching your team, facilitating communication, leading by example, empowering others and serving your team to help them achieve success.
For more information on the difference between leadership and management, here’s an article we wrote to help.
Step 2: Be Clear as to Where You Are Now
Where are your strengths and weaknesses? Are you comfortable about being a leader and coaching others?
Do you think from a process perspective?
Identify where your weaknesses lie and start to develop these skills.
Places to start are:
- Complete your leadership style audit – find your current gaps
- Develop your coaching skills
- Manage your team on the process, and not from your desk (MBWA)
- Empower your team to improve their own skills and independency
- Build a team dynamic and increase team building
- Develop goal setting skills so you can articulate the vision and objectives
Step 3: Recognise that People Have Different Leadership Needs
A one size fits all approach to leading doesn’t work. Work on developing a range of leadership skills, so you can change your leadership style to suit the situation.
- People who are unwilling or incapable at a task, need a directive approach, where you make the decisions and tell them exactly what to do
- Employees who lack confidence and have some skills, need coaching. They need you to guide them in some instances and support them in other scenarios.
- Underachieving employees need you to communicate with them regularly and share in the decision making and planning
- High achievers can be left alone to get on with what they need to do
To learn and implement these flexible leadership skills, we’ve created an article on the Situational Leadership Model.
Step 4: Develop Good Middle Manager Leadership Qualities
You need to lead by example. Good leaders accept that they influence others and work to develop a good team culture. These include:
- Developing and demonstrating good working habits. Things like respecting other people’s opinion, good time keeping, fixing the process and not blaming others, communicating with others, being positive, listening to others without forcing your own opinion, being open minded to try new things, are all key components of a positive culture
- Understanding and valuing your employee’s work and commitment- look for opportunities to praise your team when they get things right
- Handling pressure whilst demonstrating the values you’ve set – leading by example even when times are tough
- Providing regular feedback and understanding how it affects others and can develop them
- Learning from mistakes – Here’s an article around the concept of learning and improving everyday, using continuous improvement
Step 5: Build Effective Communication Channels
Studies show that the best leaders communicate all the time. Because of this, focus on building many channels to communicate with your team. Here are some examples:
- Hold quick daily stand up meetings to discuss what’s working, what’s not and what can be improved. Martin Fowler provides a detailed synopsis of running effective stand up meetings in his article.
- Conduct regular 1-2-1 reviews with your team members – focus on creating development plans and agreeing personal targets for each team member.
- Coach your employees to success. Interestingly, in a study from the Dutch Employer’s Federation, they found that middle managers identified that they are more coaches than managers, however, their employees thought otherwise; the vast majority didn’t feel coached at all. If you master a handful of things, coaching must be on this list.
- Make your goals and objectives clear on a central board in the work area and track performance every day, so
- Create standard work for key processes, to show how work should be completed in the same way every time
- Walk around regularly, so you can communicate amongst your team
Step 6: Work at Empowering Your Employees
You need to provide your employees with the support and confidence to achieve things for themselves. This means that being the saviour and fixing things for them will get you nowhere.
Also, not being able to delegate effectively, will also impede your middle manager effectiveness.
Great leaders have the courage to give ownership of tasks and projects to their team. If you are courageous enough to trust your team and can give them the vision, support and guidance along the way, then they’ll trust you as their leader.
We’ve written a number of articles that can help you develop your skills in this area, too:
- How to begin the delegating mindset
- How to delegate projects and main tasks, whilst staying in control
As a middle manager, you need to be a great leader. This means that you shouldn’t manage in the process. Instead let your team do what they need to do. Focus on making the workplace transparent so you can see problems when they happen, and to help when things go wrong.
You’ll need a lot of skills, but importantly, delegate and empower, coach and develop your employees. These are the 4 cornerstone areas to focus on.
In combination, look at things from a process perspective. What’s not working, and where in the process do you need to fix? Never blame – merely work together to fix the process.
Summary Do’s and Don’ts When Leading from the Front:
- Match your leadership style to the situation
- Be clear about your values and lead by example, expecting them to follow your lead
- Communicate at all times
- Listen to your team members
- Empower and develop your employees
- Encourage enthusiasm and show it yourself
- Don’t domineer and force your opinion
- Don’t think that as a leader, you have to come up with all the ideas
- Don’t blame others
- Don’t think that you need to lead in the process and do the work of your employees
- Don’t tell your team to work to certain values and do the opposite yourself
- Don’t manage from your office!