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Leadership Lab: Management Competencies

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Should I Apply for this Middle Management Position?

Stephen Northcutt and Kevin Bong
Version 1.1

An opening has come up for a middle management position, should I apply?

"Middle management is a layer of management in an organization whose primary job responsibility is to monitor activities of subordinates and to generate reports for upper management."[1] Odds are it means a pay raise at the beginning, but unless you work hard to develop the skills that a middle manager needs to be successful, you may actually be less employable in a few years as you lose your technical edge.

The role of the Middle Manager

Middle Managers are expected to execute senior management's strategy

"Regardless of what high-potential initiative the CEO chooses for the company, the middle management team's performance will determine whether it is a success or failure. And if the middle management team is performing in high gear, the managers themselves will generate the right initiatives, and constantly adapt and improve them during implementation."[2]

"Middle managers constitute the critical link between what's happening on the front lines - with customers and other stakeholders - and the direction set by senior management. Middle managers induce "pull" deep within the organization by creating clarity, capability, and commitment."[3]

Middle Managers serve the role of an ancient priest

An ancient priest would have to approach God (or if pagan, the gods) with the needs of the people and intercede for them. Then, the ancient priest would go to the people with a message from God. A middle manager approaches senior management in the same way. This is all well and good until senior management is having a bad day and shoots the messenger or the people revolt. So middle managers are on the edge of their seats most of the time. An interesting article about police middle managers states, "In middle management, stress comes from all sides, from unsupportive superiors above, and from subordinates below who need to be disciplined. There is a pervasive feeling of lack of control over one's work in middle management. There is some evidence that alcoholism is associated with middle management stress, although there's more evidence that the older the officer, the more likely the alcoholism."[4]

Middle Managers are expected to monitor, mentor and encourage their direct reports

In dealing with direct reports, one of the most important duties is to give feedback.

"Feedback is information relevant to how well results are being achieved. Useful feedback is timely, feasible and understood. Ideally, feedback address key activities to improve or reinforce performance. Usually, the larger the number of sources giving feedback, the more accurate is the depiction of events. Any ideas to improve or support performance should be implemented as appropriate. This ongoing feedback is often one of the most important aspects of performance management."[5]

Feedback lets an employee know they are noticed and that their contribution is appreciated:

"In the 50's, Frederick Herzberg performed an important study on motivational factors. Today, we can refer to his study in a Harvard Business School of Publishing, One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?[6]

Herzberg determined that the most powerful motivational factor is Self Achievement. It is our internal sense of achievement and being valued (by our self and others) that is our primary driver. (Let's assume, for this discussion that we are above Maslow's lower level needs of food, shelter, security, etc.) The need to be valued is very strong in humans and we will go to great lengths to get this need satisfied. We wish to be valued by our families, social friends and our workmates.

Unfortunately, we do not seem to be able to fully sustain our internal sense of value without the occasional external reinforcement. You may have noticed that some people require a lot more validation than others. We can call that external validation - Recognition. Effective positive feedback is meant to fulfill that internal sense of value. In this case, feedback demonstrates interest, reinforces desirable behaviors and redirects undesirable or misdirected behaviors. With this understanding, it becomes easier to see the value in providing feedback that is Relevant, Specific, Timely, Valuable, and Accurate."[7]

Middle managers provide that external validation employees need.

Giving positive feedback and recognition in a timely and consistent manner can be challenging, but for a new manager it can often be more challenging to effectively provide feedback for improvement. The middle manager must accurately assess associates’ performance and then communicate clearly about development areas. The manager must then assist in the associate’s development through coaching and monitoring. The skill to assess performance, and the courage and tact to accurately convey deficiencies, are traits that take time and practice to develop.

The Transition to Middle Manager

Middle Managers must learn to achieve results through others

When you become a middle manager, you switch from a role of personal achievement to a role where you achieve results through others. This transition can be especially difficult for a technical person. The new manager needs to “give up” the technology she used to own, and trust her direct report to now manage it effectively. In addition, a technician often gets their motivation and sense of achievement from fixing something that’s broken or putting something new in place. For a manager, these accomplishments are less frequent and less direct, and a new manager's motivation often suffers from a loss of this sense of achievement.

Part of achieving results through others means that, for the middle manager, supporting the productivity of direct reports takes precedence over personal productivity. Many new managers underestimate the time and energy required to be an effective leader. This includes time spent monitoring and tracking progress, communicating strategies and goals, and providing feedback and coaching. Finally, an effective manager must be available for their associates and consistently follow through on commitments to build trust.

Middle Managers suffer from a capability gap

The skills that make a person a great technician and employee are not the same skills. Some of the skills a middle manager must work to master include negotiations, diplomacy, managing up, resource planning and tracking, coaching, and thinking strategically. A middle manager needs the courage to make decisions with less information and less of a safety net, as well as the courage to provide honest feedback to direct reports and to deal with poor performers. For many new managers, this position is the first time they have a need to demonstrate or exercise these skills.

"Written by Giles Walker, senior consultant at Hay Group, Corporate Souffle - Is The Middle Giving Way? found that 38 per cent of UK directors believe that their organization is 'paralyzed' by ineffective middle management and 40 per cent identified this as the single greatest barrier to achieving company objectives. Over half (54 per cent) of senior managers felt that middle managers were uncommitted to strategic goals, and 62 per cent criticized lack of management and leadership skills. While 72 per cent of middle managers felt they could do their boss's job, senior managers identified only 21 per cent with the necessary talent."[8]

"Middle managers with formal management training who responded to a questionnaire, rated their preparation for competence in management tasks higher than middle managers with no management training. There were significant differences in the importance and preparation ratings of both manager groups for some tasks, with these differences related to both different roles and training. Managers indicated a preference for a combination of academic and formal on-the-job training."[9]

Middle managers must learn balance to avoid pitfalls

There are a number of balances to be learned by a person new to a leadership role. The first is how involved to be in the day-to-day work of direct reports. Some new managers become too involved, unable to let go of the technology, delegate, or trust their staff. This micro-management keeps the manager from thinking strategically and impacts the morale and performance of staff members. Some new managers become too hands-off, letting associates “manage themselves” while the manager works on his or her own agenda. A manager needs to be involved to ensure that associates are meeting their goals and ensure that the associates’ work supports the business strategy. A manager who is not involved misses opportunities to develop staff through feedback and coaching

Another balance that can be a challenge for new managers is how protective to be of direct reports. The middle manager is the “go to” person for customers when their needs aren’t being met. Some new managers can be over-protective of their staff, dismissing or making excuses for customer complaints. This provides a poor customer experience, and also misses opportunities to improve service or develop staff. Some new mangers can be under-protective, passing blame for issues on to their direct reports without taking any personal responsibility. This can severely hinder the manager’s ability to gain the trust of his direct reports.

A final balance is the middle manager’s relationship with direct reports. In a technical role, a person often has varying levels of friendships with their peers. This can often include spending time outside of work on shared interests. These friendships can become a challenge when a person moves into a leadership role. If the friendship is maintained at the same level, it can lead to a perception of favoritism from other team members or cause the manager difficulty in giving honest feedback. A manager should, however, show a personal interest in each individual in the group. This helps to build the relationship between the manager and the employee, helps the manager to understand the goals and motivations of the employee, and is another step towards personal recognition of the value that the associate brings to the organization.

Drawbacks of a Middle Management position

Subordinates to Middle Managers may view them as competition

"Increasingly, younger workers are finding that no matter how many hours they put in or how much their bosses rave about their work, they're just plain stuck. An entire generation is bumping against something no amount of youthful vigor can match. Call it the Gray Ceiling.

The Gray Ceiling is purely a function of mathematics. Jon Ciampi, for example, was born in 1973, when the birthrate hit a quarter-century low. Just ahead of him and his peers is the anomaly known as the baby boom, the 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964."[10]

A promotion to Middle Manager can be bad for your career unless you advance

When promoted to middle manager, your job moves away from technical skills. You spend time in meetings, time counseling direct reports; and whether you have training or not, you try to develop the skills an ancient priest would need to survive. In addition, many organizations are trying to lower their dependence on middle managers by looking for techies with some management skills. "While technical skills will always be in demand, employers are also looking for a mix of management skills and overall business savvy."[11]

If you are approached while at the height of your technical skills (which also means the height of your employability) to become management, don't automatically say yes. "When asked if they can be effective in a new management position, most managers feel pressure to answer "yes" with confidence and self-assurance, even if they have doubts. Accepting a position that is virtually impossible in which to be successful does not help the company and it certainly does not help you. Better to make sure the job is one that is both attainable and doable, albeit ambitious."[12] If you do accept the job, focus on executing senior management's strategy well. The emphasis in your performance appraisal is how you serve as the critical link between what's happening on the front lines with customers, other stakeholders and the direction set by senior management. Stay focused on that.

Middle Management is hard

We wish we could end this article talking about the immense satisfaction a middle management job brings. And there is a certain satisfaction knowing that you are doing a better job than the previous cretin in the position. But mostly, from this job expect to hear criticism and complaints. Having to serve as an ancient priest, who keeps the peace between senior management (who see themselves as gods) and the people, is a challenge. It will rub the rough edges off your personality.

So why do it?

Some of the benefits of moving to a middle management position could be higher pay, or fewer evenings and weekends at the office performing after-hours support tasks, but the main reason for taking a middle management role is the desire to move up in the organization. The wisest course of action for a middle manager is to stay focused on being viewed as part of the 21 per cent of middle managers with the necessary talent to do your boss' job. Senior management is hard too, but it is a lot less hard. The middle management position is a great opportunity to develop skills needed to advance, such as coaching and mentoring, giving feedback, thinking strategically, negotiating, and managing up. Stay motivated through the added power and influence you have in the organization, and find achievement in the development and successes of your staff. Use the time to get more exposure, build relationships and win fans within the organization.

Co-author, Kevin Bong, is VP of Network & Data Security for Johnson Financial Group in Racine, WI, as well as a Master's degree student at The SANS Technology Institute (STI)