The Forgotten Middle

I want to put in a word for the forgotten Middle.

Everywhere I look, in the professional journals, online forums and on the business bookshelves, there’s heaps of opinion and commentary about Leadership; who our great leaders are, the qualities of a great leader, leadership models, leadership quotes. Hurrah for Leaders indeed! Where would we be without them?

Leaders are by definition out front, ahead of the rest, blazing a trail forward and constantly with an eye on the horizon. It’s what they do. Some of us may feel that our Leaders are so far out in front, they’ve lost all sense of contact with those at the rearguard, which is why there is so often such a huge disconnect between an organisation’s Vision Statement and what actually goes on at the point of service delivery.

And that’s where the Magnificent Middle comes in – the executives, team leaders and department heads that have the challenging (and frankly, often bewildering) job of turning those high-level Leadership visions and decisions into the everyday customer experience. Those in the Middle have to strike a tricky balance, providing both a buffer and a conduit between the various extremes of the organisation – all without upsetting anyone.

For such a critical organ in the corporate body, the Middle can be disgracefully undervalued and neglected. Leadership development programmes all too often start at the top of the organisation, only to peter out before they trickle down to the mid-section. Other development programmes focus on general skills, such as IT and product knowledge, that are applied to staff at all levels, often driven by compliance considerations. Development for the Middle can all too easily disappear down the cracks between the paving stones.

People commonly find themselves promoted into a middle manager role because they shine at a particular job. The assumption is that they will be able to sprinkle some of their fairy dust onto other people, just by being put in charge of them. Of course it is always right to recognise talent and visibly reward it, but it is a mistake to presume that because someone is a brilliant salesman, or call handler, or production line worker, that they will automatically be good at managing others to do the same. You need a whole extra set of skills if you’re going to be successful in supervising other people, or formulating new procedures, or minding budgets, or troubleshooting rogue stores. Or, increasingly these days, to keep the team engaged and productive as they undergo a painful period of downsizing or reorganisation.

In addition, new Middles, when promoted above their old team, have a particular struggle in deciding how to be a credible manager starting first thing on Monday morning, when last thing Friday afternoon they were just one of the gang. Gaining credibility can be a tricky and emotionally demanding series of minute-by-minute decisions. Who to go to lunch with? What to do about office banter? How to be seen to treat everyone fairly? Can/should I still even expect to be liked by my old team mates now I’ve made the journey to The Dark Side?

Every new Middle would benefit from the support of a Mentor – someone preferably (though not necessarily) from within the organisation who’s been there, done it and come out the other side with some great learning to share.

And Middles should also take a leaf from their Leaders, who are increasingly engaging a Coach to be their impartial sounding board. Top quality reflection is the truly effective way to reaffirm your confidence in your abilities, define the values you bring to your role and troubleshoot on-the-job situations and relationships.

So let’s hear it for the hardworking, pivotal, versatile, conflicted, aspirational, Magnificent Middle! Where would we be without them? And where are they going to be without the committed support of their organisation?

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