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The Plight of the Mid-Level Exec

I have a story to tell... It's about a friend. She is a rising star at a fast-growing business. She joined several years ago on the product team, and, as the business grew, she grew with it. She was promoted last year to manage a small team. The promotion came with both a raise and an increase in visibility.

Since then, she has grown steadily less happy. She is constantly frustrated and on the edge of burnout. She feels less empowered in her manager role than as an individual contributor. Her days are full of meetings, which seem themselves full of politics and trivialities. There's no time to get all of her work done, let alone manage her new team. There she sits, accumulating stress and frustration, with no end in sight.

The Crucial Role

A confession: I made this friend up! She doesn't exist! But also, she does. She is one of millions of mid-level executives who gets a bad name for being caught in the middle. Despite their scapegoat status, mid-level executives are critical to the failure/success of a growing organization. The role has two crucial components:

(1) Strategy. They are quarterbacks, taking the strategy that is set by the executive team and executing it (or not) on the field. They translate vision to execution, spanning the gap between the deciders and the doers. In high-performing organizations, middle-managers have a high level of autonomy, meaning they are not only enforcing strategy set from above, but also augmenting and adjusting.

(2) Engagement. These execs are also the heart of the organization. This is the talent management side of the job, and it *should* be the primary responsibility. These execs set the mood, culture, and engagement levels for all of the front-line employees. A recent survey from Gallup found that managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement (which is both stagnant, and a key driver of performance).

The Problems and the Solutions

In their two key roles - strategy and talent management - most mid-level execs are fighting uphill. There are three ways in which organizations can better support their "middle".

(1) Put people first. Management roles are people-based roles, yet organizations promote and hire managers on their individual contributor skills and performance. So managers continue to put their individual responsibilities first and leave the "manager" role for free time, which means never. The best organizations develop people-first managers as a cornerstone of their financial success. In order to do so:

  • Sort for managers with a strong foundation of human-centric leadership skills: Ask if this person is: inspiring, trusting, a direct communicator, organized, assertive, etc.

  • Invest in people leaders. Provide hands-on leadership trainings to young leaders; provide ongoing team and individual coaching to strengthen senior executives.

  • Work with struggling managers to either coach them up or find new roles. There are plenty of high-level roles in an organization that limit exposure to managing others.

  • Instill a culture of of human-centric development throughout the org, up to the executive team. This includes engagement pulses and 360 feedback processes.

(2) Define clear roles. Mid-level executives lack role clarity and therefore have too many responsibilities distracting them from high-impact activities. A study from McKinsey found that 50% of manager time is spent on non-managerial tasks. No surprise, then, that 43% of middle managers report feeling burnt out at work, the highest % among any cohort. When managers get promoted, it is a transformative event:

  • Set clear expectations about the nature of the new role. What are the domain, responsibilities, and success outcomes?

  • Individual-contributor responsibilities should be reviewed and delegated. Managing an employee takes ~3-4 hours per week of face-time (the ideal is 6 hours, but some can be in a group). So if you take on 3 managees, you should clear 10 hours per week of individual work (*not* to be replaced by new individual work).

  • Administrative work should be delegated to administrative roles. Find common admin time-sucks among managers and eliminate the low-hanging fruit.

  • The manager experience should be reviewed org-wide every ~6 months to identify common pain points. During this time, look at each managers "span", i.e. the number of employees they manage and their other key responsibilities.

(3) Give them power. Mid-level managers have an invaluable perspective on the operations of an organization: they have access to both the boots on the ground and the brains in the tower. Many teams do not tap the value of this perspective:

  • Managers experience too much bureaucracy. Too much bureaucracy comes primarily in the form of drawn-out approval processes. Ask your managers what internal processes are stifling growth and start with a small win.

  • Managers experience not enough autonomy. Grant managers an active role in the development of their team and the company overall. Expose them to important decisions; give freedom in how they run their team; empower them with transparent information; and request feedback around the efficacy of strategic initiatives.

  • Managers are stuck in silos. Executive teams behave like a First Team - their commitment is to the entire business. Middle managers have no such luxury. They are "stuck" in their silo, making their work as strategists impossible. Open up your managers to the entire organization by hosting cross-functional meetings and events. Create projects and initiatives that align disparate parts of the business to get your managers thinking system-wide.

If you're interested in empowering your people managers to unlock a new stage of growth in your business, check out our training program designed for emerging leaders.

What about "us"?

The section above described a set of solutions that are organization-based, i.e. targeted to those who have decision-making influence across the org. Below are three simple tips for those who find themselves "stuck in the middle" without support from above:

(1) Find "we" solutions. Think and communicate in terms of team needs and outcomes. This will help align your position with others. When raising your concerns, spend a majority of the time proposing or discussing solutions. If you are solving business needs, and you can find joy in that process, you will have a long, happy, and successful career.

(2) Move towards your light. You aren't alone. Find colleagues of all levels and departments with whom you enjoy connecting. Talk about what's going well and what is not. Control what you can control: your attitude and your conversations. You have more autonomy and influence than you feel. Frustration often stems from not doing and saying the things you know you should. Explore your passions outside of work; talk to new people; take care of your deepest self.

Good luck out there.


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