In organizations, middle managers are like bridges. Just as bridges provide passage across physical obstacles like a body of water, valley, or railway, middle managers connect different teams across strategic levels of companies. Without the bridge, moving efficiently or easily from one place to another would be difficult.
And like bridges, middle managers require care and improvement to ensure connections happen continually. Middle managers need regular development experiences to be effective. Your middle managers bridge the gap between strategy-driven executive leaders and execution-driven frontline leaders. Failing to invest in and develop the capabilities of your middle managers can be a risky—and costly—mistake.
As the saying goes, “what got you here won’t get you there.” Oftentimes, middle managers were successful individual contributors and frontline leaders, which is why they were promoted. But they may struggle with the transition into middle management.
Unlike most frontline leadership, mid-level leadership is multidirectional. Leaders find themselves stretched while navigating expectations from multiple stakeholders and teams. They must now deal with practical challenges like decision making, profit and loss (P&L) complexity, or personal challenges, like a lack of confidence among a new, more experienced peer group.
As leaders transition into middle management, there are four main pressures they may face. Their ability to navigate these pressures often determines whether they succeed or fail.
1. Leading the Business
Middle managers must execute their company’s strategy. This requires complex decision making and is risky. They must shift from the tactical focus of frontline leadership to the broader focus of strategic leadership. If they can’t shift their mindset to a long-term vision, they may revert to frontline behaviors, focusing on operational tasks and unintentionally neglecting long-term organizational goals.
2. Leading Teams
Middle managers are the ambassadors of organizational culture. And with the shift to remote and hybrid work, middle managers may be the only faces of a company’s senior leadership that employees regularly see. In the absence of traditional brick-and-mortar office culture, the leader is the culture. They may also lead global, diverse teams, requiring more developed communication and interpersonal skills to convey clear and compelling visions across teams.
3. Leading Networks
With a larger network of constituents, skills such as influencing and stakeholder management become essential. It’s easier to get things done when driving frontline execution with a team, but success in the middle requires working across boundaries to influence colleagues whom they may not have direct reporting authority over. To make progress, middle managers must navigate competing priorities, organizational politics, and limited resources across different groups. They must ensure that key stakeholders are aligned and involved in executing the strategy.
4. Leading Self
Leaders are more visible now. Mid-level leaders manage larger, more strategic initiatives, make decisions with larger consequences, and influence across networks and organizations. As a result, success and failure is more visible to teams, peers, and senior leadership. Leadership style, tendencies, and behaviors are also more visible. Greater risk, consequences of failure, and uncertainty require middle managers to gain self-awareness of personality traits that could derail their success or erode trust and learn how to effectively manage them.
For development strategies to engage middle managers, read DDI’s blog.