The Ultimate Guide to Middle Management:
What’s Changing, Why it’s Hard, and How to Get Ahead
Be prepared for what lies ahead. This guide has everything on the current challenges and opportunities for middle managers. So if you’re a middle manager, aspire to be one, or lead and develop middle managers, this guide is for you.
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Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. While these words can be used to describe the world we live and work in, they can also be used to describe the role of middle management today. From flatting organizational structures to shifting employee expectations, the job description of middle management has been and continues to be rewritten.
Middle managers used to be responsible for overseeing output, monitoring productivity, and relaying information back and forth between upper management and those on the frontline but those tasks can now be taken care of through technology. As a result, middle managers have rapidly taken on a larger role in developing others, translating strategy into tactics, leading up, resolving conflict, and creating a positive team culture.
Workforce by PwC has also noted that today’s middle managers do the following better than upper management.
Middle managers know more people, are closer to them and can use their informal power and influence to bring about substantive, lasting change.
Middle managers are tuned into their leaders' and employees' moods and emotional needs.
Middle managers effectively manage the tension between change and the status quo.
It is clear that going forward, those in middle management will be increasingly involved in and responsible for the people side of the organization. As such, success will hinge on developing soft skills.
We created the following guide to help middle managers prepare for what lies ahead. The guide covers what’s changing in middle management, the skills middle managers will need in the coming months and years, the steps to creating a personal development plan, and what to look for when sourcing leadership development and training. Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
- What Is Middle Management?
- Why Is Middle Management So Difficult?
- Leadership Topics for Middle Management
- How To Create a Personal Development Plan
- Leadership Development for Middle Managers: What to Look For
- Next Steps
What Is Middle Management?
Individuals considered middle management often holds the title of general manager, plant manager, regional manager, divisional manager, or department or functional manager and typically are responsible for a department, location, or geographic region. They’re not frontline managers or upper management. They sit right in the middle, as the name would imply.
As Harvard noted, middle managers are “the people running the company on a day-to-day basis.” They lead other managers and communicate to upper management what is happening on the frontline. They’re the conduit between implementing the big picture strategy defined by those at the top and getting things done in the day-to-day operation of the business.
In the words of researchers for the International Business Review, “Middle managers perform a downward support role by implementing deliberate strategy through the translation of objectives from top management into effective operational plans, and an upward influence role by synthesizing information for top management, thus filtering important strategic feedback upwards.”
While the accountabilities and responsibilities of middle management will vary between companies and departments, there are some commonalities. Typical duties of middle managers include:
Developing their team by conducting reviews, delivering constructive feedback and coaching, creating and executing development plans, scheduling one-on-one meetings, co-creating objectives and professional goal-setting
Ensuring frontline implementation of policies, procedures, and new change initiatives
Defining objective and goal setting for their department, region, location, or division
Implementing process and continuous improvements to reduce costs and increase profitability or contribution for the group they oversee
Establishing and tracking budget, spend and revenue, as well as quarterly and annual goals and targets
Driving a positive customer experience, independent of whether the customer is external or internal
Keeping the pulse on competitors, new entrants, and possible disruptors
In addition to their tactical responsibilities, middle management is the linchpin in companies for rallying those around them to collaborate, solve problems, and work together to uncover solutions to organizational-wide issues. Two professors from the University of Massachusetts did a deep dive into the role of middle management and how they can influence organizational performance. They uncovered middle management is key to:
Championing Strategic Alternatives: As the liaison between upper management and what is actually taking place day-in and day-out, middle managers provide insights and innovations to leaders with suggestions on new capabilities or how to redeploy exciting capabilities in new ways.
Facilitating Adaptability: In the center of the action within an organization, middle managers are ideally positioned to break down internal silos and encourage cross-functional experimentation, innovation, problem-solving, and process improvements that increase a company’s ability to be responsive and agile.
Synthesizing Information: From seeing first-hand opportunities and issues from the frontline, middle managers are conveniently situated to connect feedback and events to strategic issues and share those ideas and insights with upper management.
Implementing Deliberate Strategy: Middle managers are the ultimate matchmakers, as they’re the ones that align their department, region, or location’s actions with the strategic intent of the organization.
Despite the critically important role middle management plays in a company's success, it can often feel like a thankless job as they seek to please upper management while motivating their managers to deliver results. This can leave many middle managers feeling like they “can’t win,” which we’ll discuss more in-depth in the next section.
Why Is Middle Management So Difficult?
Having to bridge the gap between visionary, strategic direction at the top with the tactical, day-to-day of running the business can be exhausting. Middle managers are stuck translating information and implementing decisions from the top to the bottom. They deliver results through others by leading their team of managers.
In an article from SHRM, Greg Muccio, a senior manager for Southwest Airlines sums up the experience faced by middle managers perfectly. He said, “The front-line supervisors are in the trenches with the tactical work. The directors spend their time casting a vision. When you’re in the middle, you have to do both. That is a challenge.”
It’s no surprise then that middle managers are experiencing a lack of job satisfaction. A 2014 survey of more than 320,000 employees across various industries, uncovered that managers fall in the bottom 5% for engagement compared to the responses of those in the rest of the study groups. This was reiterated in 2021 when Gallup found that managers' engagement dropped seven-points from the previous year, which puts them just behind healthcare workers who experienced the most significant drop in engagement.
TED Talk speaker and author, Simon Sinek believes there are several reasons middle managers may be experiencing dissatisfaction. As previously mentioned, Simon agrees that a middle manager’s role is challenging. They are in this weird central ground where they have to be slightly strategic and slightly tactical and translate what’s going on between the two groups at the top and bottom.
In addition to the challenges faced by the nature of the role and location in an organization, he has witnessed companies doing a disservice to themselves and middle managers in two ways and making the middle management role much harder than it should be.
Problem #1: Many middle managers find themselves promoted because they were great functional contributors but do not possess leadership skills or have access to the training they need to develop them. Middle managers find themselves needing a variety of new skill sets such as listening, communication, conflict management, and giving and receiving feedback but do not have access to training.
Problem #2: Middle managers who are self-taught about being a great leader have a common complaint that all upper managers care about is delivering results. In other words, there is a disconnect between the middle managers who are trying to do the right thing and be good managers for their people and upper management who appear to be focused solely on the numbers.
To overcome these problems, organizations need to invest in leadership training for their middle managers and support a culture of continuous learning front the top down. They need the executive team to understand and champion the value of leadership development and do so by aligning achievement and recognition not just to financial performance but also to leadership performance and other metrics such as employee engagement and retention.
As much as organizations are responsible for the development of their leaders, there are things middle managers can do to take leadership development into their own hands and advocate for it. In the following sections, we will review the skills middle managers need and how to attain them.
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Leadership Topics for Middle Management
Middle managers once spent the majority of their time overseeing output, closely monitoring productivity, and relaying information back and forth between upper management and those on the frontline. But as technology has advanced and remote/hybrid work arrangements have become the norm, it has become abundantly clear that this is no longer the best use of time. Not when technology can do the job more efficiently, and the multi-generational workforce craves true empowerment, not micromanagement.
This does not mean that the middle manager's role is now obsolete. It simply means that the position must evolve to meet the needs of an ever-changing workplace. With technology handling certain aspects of the job, middle managers' time and energy are freed up to focus on their people in the form of increasing employee engagement, connecting individuals, building and leading high-performance teams, and supporting the development of their people.
However, the Director of Global Leadership and Organizational Development at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Renny Bloch, has pointed out that “many managers are never given the tools or training to manage. They typically rise through the ranks of a technical track and then - all of a sudden - are given a team to manage and are expected to do so effectively. In particular, they struggle with soft skills, such as giving feedback, setting expectations, developing their team, and managing conflict.”
A study by Harvard noted something similar, as respondents reported soft skills as the most important abilities for middle managers going forward:
Coaching/developing talent (67%)
Managing complexity/change (52%)
Strategic alignment/execution (46%)
Leading high-performing teams (42%)
Emotional intelligence (42%)
In addition to these skills, we have also noted several others below that middle managers should advocate for and prioritize when seeking leadership development opportunities.
The ability to recognize, monitor, and manage one's own emotions and recognize, navigate and influence others' emotions in stressful situations can make all the difference in a middle manager’s leadership abilities. In research conducted by TalentSmart, 34 workplace skills were evaluated and of them, emotional intelligence was found to be the strongest predictor of performance.
Shifting from being reliant on yourself to get work done and hit your personal objectives to producing results through others requires new skills, a mindset shift, and changed behaviors. A line can be drawn between how successful a middle manager is to how well they can pass on their own functional and leadership strengths to their team of managers. However, to do so effectively, middle managers need the following skills:
Delivering and Receiving Feedback
To effectively coach and grow your team’s abilities as well as expose areas of improvement for yourself, middle managers need to develop and hone the skills of delivering and receiving feedback. As Bill Gates once famously said, “We all need people to give us feedback. That is how we improve.”
The process of handing over responsibilities and projects to your team communicates your trust in them and is a great way to boost morale, confidence, and skills. Delegating and the corresponding teaching that goes along with it, empowers you to pass along your own strengths, free up your time, and develop those around you to take on increased responsibility.
A great coach is someone who instructs, trains, gives input, and helps individuals and teams achieve their goals. Through coaching, middle managers demonstrate their commitment and investment in seeing their people reach their development and career goals, which boosts motivation, engagement, and strong working relationships. When middle managers are equipped with the skills to be a coach, great things can happen, as their people then become great coaches to their frontline teams.
The understanding and skills to hold employees and themselves accountable for what they agreed to is an essential competency for middle managers to develop. John Brown, Chief Editor at PrettyMotors.com summarizes the importance of leaders holding employees accountable. He says, “Accountability is important since it results in a highly efficient and productive team. The key point is having each member take full responsibility on a given task or goal from A to Z, which eliminates confusion and saves a lot of time and resources.”
Leading High-Performance Teams
Teams are the backbone of every organization. Middle managers play an essential role in facilitating the formation of groups that collaborate, solve cross-function problems, uncover efficiencies, and develop innovations to serve their customers better. However, great teams don’t just happen by chance, and middle managers play an important role in building teams and creating the right conditions so they can thrive, which is even more critical in a remote and distributed workplace.
Any middle management development plan should include significant time in developing knowledge and skills to lead high-performance teams. As Debra Kasowski noted in her article for Forbes, “High-performing teams do not form on their own. They are led by leaders who bring out the best in their people, utilizing their skills and abilities to the fullest.”
Every skill listed will not happen without strong, inspiring, and clear communication. You can't coach and develop others, lead teams, build relationships, or manage change without it. Leadership and communication are one and the same. Whether it is conducting a staff meeting where you’re speaking one-to-many or a catch-up meeting where it is one-to-one, developing and honing the skills of effective communication is critical to being a successful leader.
Communication needs to go beyond relaying information from senior leaders and vice versa. Effective communication leaves the listener motivated, inspired, and ready to take action. Skills such as active listening, storytelling, difficult conversations, and delivering presentations should be part of any middle management development plan.
Building strong relationships in trust and open communication has never been more critical. More than ever, people are looking for connections, not just personally but also professionally. They want to feel connected to their boss, colleagues, and organization.
A middle manager’s ability to provide purpose, present empathy, show vulnerability, resolve conflict, and demonstrate humility when they make mistakes, is central to building trusting and productive relationships with employees. In the VUCA world we find ourselves in, focusing middle management development around people-centric skills is paramount.
Resilience and Agility
Being able to bounce back from setbacks, pivot quickly, and change, as opportunities or challenges arise, are skills that middle management need to lead their teams. The current business world is changing rapidly, and those who don’t let challenges hold them back, are able to solve problems amid complexity, make decisions quickly, and understand change as the only way to remain competitive are the ones who will succeed.
Being an agile and resilient leader, especially during times of crisis, can be the difference between an organization weathering the storm or complete collapse. As we’ve witnessed over the last two years, those organizations and leaders who were able to make fast decisions and absorb and adapt to challenges are the ones who are coming out ahead.
To be prepared, all middle managers should pursue training in resilience, agility, adaptability, and leading change. Being equipped with these skills before they’re needed will ensure that middle managers have greater resilience, adapt, and lead their teams to do the same when the next crisis hits.
Strategy, Alignment, and Execution
Middle management is the linchpin if a corporate strategy is actually executed on the frontlines. As Simon Sinek pointed out in his video (found in the “Why Middle Management Is So Hard?” section of this guide), middle managers are the ones who take the strategy as directed by executives and implement it to the masses. However, if the strategy is going to break down, it will break down in the middle, at the middle management level.
The middle management roles require understanding and aligning actions with the strategic direction, leading the change to ensure a smooth strategy implementation, selling the strategy and benefits to their people, and closing the loop with feedback from the front line to upper management. To do this, middle managers need a solid foundation of knowledge on the functional areas of the business to be able to comprehend the strategy, as well as training in change management.
How To Create a Personal Development Plan (+Template)
While the job of a middle manager never has been and never will be easy, it also doesn’t have to be quite so hard. As discussed in the previous section, there are specific leadership skills you can develop that will make it that much easier to bridge the strategies dictated by upper management and the everyday life of individuals on the frontline.
To ensure you are on track to develop those skills and achieve your own professional goals, it is best to create a personal development plan. Simply put, a personal development plan is an action plan. It outlines what you want to achieve (your goals), what you need to do to achieve it, and how you will do so.
Too often, these things exist only in our minds and are not something we intentionally plan, track, and measure. A personal development plan solves this. Creating this type of document provides you with much-needed structure and direction. You also have something tangible that you can share with your leaders and HR teams to secure support and funding for your personal leadership development.
Before you get started on your plan, consider the following tips, and then when you’re ready, begin filling out the personal development plan template provided.
Identify Your Professional Goals and Vision
First and foremost, it’s important to identify what your vision for yourself is, both in terms of your career as a whole and specifically as a leader. In other words, where do you want to end up? Where do you see yourself in 2, 5, or 10 years? Next, what are your goals for yourself? Is there anything you want to achieve in particular, such as getting promoted to upper management?
By starting the process of creating a personal development plan with this clear in your mind, you’ll be more motivated and likely to create a document that truly reflects your needs and wants. If you need help setting goals, try using our Professional Goal Setting Workbook.
Look Back at Your Previous Leaders
You likely have a leader who you speak highly of; whose actions, words, and approach you try to emulate; whose perspective and opinion you highly value. You also likely have a leader (or two) who you actively seek to avoid becoming.
In both cases, you can learn something valuable about yourself and your ideal approach to middle management that should be reflected in your personal development plan. For example, if your “best boss ever” was someone who delegated challenging tasks and granted you the autonomy to complete them, you might put special emphasis on developing that skill.
Conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis
Every middle manager can benefit from the information gathered from a personal SWOT analysis and should complete the exercise periodically. A personal SWOT analysis will inform you of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. If completed critically and honestly, you will have a greater sense of what should (or should not) be prioritized on your personal development plan to make your job as a middle manager easier and more enjoyable. Here are several questions to ask yourself during a personal SWOT analysis:
Do you have any particular skill or talent that makes you stand out from the crowd?
What do you do better than others?
What resources do you have access to? (ex. Networks, tools, technology)
What tasks/topics prompt others to ask for your input or help?
What do your bosses/peers/employees praise or compliment you about?
Are there any tasks or responsibilities that you avoid or feel uncomfortable with?
Do you lack training or experience in a particular topic area or skill?
Is there any skill or behavior you have received feedback or criticism about?
Have you turned down an opportunity from fear or a lack of confidence?
What habits or traits do you feel may be holding you back?
What sparks your interest or curiosity at work?
What resources can you take advantage of? (ex. People, technology, tools)
Is there a need or trend in your company or industry that no one is filling that you can?
What skills, qualities, or abilities do you admire and want to learn?
Are there any projects, stretch assignments, or development opportunities that you feel passionate about being a part of?
Could any of your weaknesses become threats to your personal or team’s success?
Is your role (or the demand for the things you do) changing?
Do you work too much? Are you anxious, stressed, or burned out occasionally or all the time? Is this negatively impacting your personal life or physical health?
Do you have access to the financial, emotional, and technological support/resources you need to do your job well and improve your leadership skills?
Have any obstacles repeatedly prevented you from doing your job to the best of your ability?
Consider Doing an Assessment
There is a reason assessments are part of our leadership training programs here at Niagara Institute, and that’s because they’re a powerful tool middle managers can use to understand their leadership behaviors and competencies on a deeper level. By selecting an assessment that elicits feedback from your employees, peers, and leaders, you will be able to corroborate your SWOT analysis findings and ensure your personal development plan accounts for any additional opportunities for improvement you may not have identified.
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Editable Personal Development Plan for Middle Managers
Leadership Development for Middle Managers: What To Look For
Once you have created a vision for yourself as a leader, recognized the challenges of getting there, identified the skills needed to do so, and drafted a personal development plan, it’s time to seek out leadership development opportunities. When you do so, it’s important to remember there is more to this equation than training. You will also need professional coaching, a mentor, and support from upper management.
Support from Upper Management
Support from upper management comes in many different forms, all of which are important to your success. First, you need moral support, especially from your direct leader. You need them to help you prioritize your development amongst other competing priorities, encourage you to apply what you’ve learned, and offer to coach.
Second, you need support in terms of resources, like budget to enroll in training and hire a professional coach, technology to automate parts of your role, or people to continue the work that needs to be done as you complete training or partake in stretch assignments.
When it comes to leadership training, you have countless options at your fingertips along with any internal training programs that your organization provides. Everything from your learning style (lecture-based learning vs. learning by doing), to your budget and schedule, will impact the provider you turn to for leadership training.
The most important thing will be to find a provider whose programs were built with the unique needs of today’s middle managers in mind, which means plenty of time for interaction with the facilitator and fellow participants, practice, feedback, and tools that are immediately applicable.
While training will help you develop specific leadership skills and tools, there will inevitably be areas of your development that require more extensive support. This is where professional coaching comes in.
One-on-one coaching with a professional coach is a truly personalized experience in that your coach is entirely focused on you and your needs. They provide clarity on your goals, advise you on your strengths and weaknesses, give situational advice, act as a sounding board, and hold you accountable. Not to mention, professional coaching arrangements can be customized to suit your needs, timeline, and budget.
Unlike a professional coach who you work with for a set period of time, a mentor is someone who you can carry on an informal arrangement with for years, even decades. Whether they are older or younger than you, in your company or not, in your field or not, what matters is that they have expertise in a specific area or skill that you want to learn.
This is hugely beneficial to those in middle management, as it gives you someone to turn to whether you need impartial advice on a challenging leadership situation or feedback on your career’s trajectory.
Middle management is about so much more than liaising between upper management and the frontline and monitoring productivity. Those who are genuinely successful and stand out in middle management today are those who are invested in developing their employees, building and leading high-performing teams, creating a culture of accountability, communicating effectively, and translating strategy into practical, tactical plans.
As Future Forum put it in their 2021 research report, “Middle managers [need to move] away from being attendance takers and human routers of information and into coaches and facilitators, creating momentum toward objectives and leveraging technology for sharing knowledge and status updates.”
Fortunately, you can learn the skills and tools needed to do precisely that with a provider like Niagara Institute. With everything from training programs on leadership, communication, business acumen, and inclusion, to a roster of highly qualified professional coaches, and an assortment of leadership assessments, you have access to the support and resources you need to put your personal development plan into action and become the best middle manager you can be.
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