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Challenges Middle Managers Face and Key Skills Needed for Success

Interaction leadership skills are very important for mid-level leaders. At the front line, you set a tone on a small team, but middle managers may also influence a function, unit, or country’s operations. Middle managers play a critical role in driving ethical company culture.

Here are a few of the must-have skills for middle managers with examples:

1. Conflict Management
A director recently became the leader of an acquired business in Western Europe. The CEO of the business now reports to the director but isn’t happy about it. In fact, the CEO is continuing to work in a vacuum and is failing to partner with the leaders of other regional businesses.

A direct report of the director declares, “I know we need to get him on board with the wider vision, but I can’t be bothered to try and engage him anymore. He’s a nightmare, and we all hope you’ll let him go.” The director has no intention of terminating the CEO, but how can they create collaboration among the team members? How can the director diffuse these emotions before they spill out across their European business?

2. Influencing Up, Down, and Across
The head of a supply chain for a global manufacturer is struggling with managing missed targets from their external delivery partner. The vendor was integrated into the business 18 months ago, and the workload to make this change was enormous. But while the business grew, the vendor’s ability to maintain standards slipped and worsened weekly.

How should this middle manager engage others and influence them toward a long-term delivery strategy to meet growth goals, knowing that everyone is exhausted from the last vendor integration? The executives will count the coins wasted, peers might judge previous poor decisions, and direct reports will resent repeated effort on top of high workloads.

3. Building and Maintaining a Network
In his Learning to Lead From the Middle podcast, Andrew Gill asks, “Who do I need in my network? Who do I need operationally, and who do I need strategically? Who do I need personally with regard to my career?” A skill that is commonly seen as nice to have becomes essential at the middle level.

For example, a functional leader encountered a scenario involving a data security error for a top client. Immediate action was required to mitigate risk and minimize fallout for the customer. Fortunately, this leader had proactively built a relationship with a senior leader in their technology department who engaged three team members to significantly reduce the negative consequences of the data error. The leader managing the error response said, “I don’t think he would have done that for just anyone, but luckily we had built a good relationship.” No luck required—by proactively creating and maintaining a cross-functional relationship, this leader set themself up to quickly get support and resolve the data security error.

4. Selling and Reselling a Vision for the Organizational Future
As the translators of strategy into execution, middle managers must also transform strategy and culture. They need to consistently share the purpose of changes, not just on day one but again and again. If you’ve seen anything from the rise of quiet quitters, it’s the value of leaders highlighting each employee’s purpose in the organization.

For more must-have middle manager skills, read DDI’s blog.

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