You have always been a stellar employee, delivering projects with quality and speed above and beyond your manager’s expectations. Like most white-collar workers, your responsibilities revolved around getting stuff done: making phone calls, preparing presentations or write-ups, coding or performing analysis work and basically keeping your boss happy.
One day, your boss calls you in and says: “Congrats, Melissa! You’ve done a fantastic job and we are promoting you to a supervisory role. You are now in charge of several junior employees and your job is to ensure that they also deliver great work on time and on budget.”
One of the hardest transitions that leaders make is the one from individual contributor to a supervisory role.
Why? Because the skills that made one great at delivering results (attention to detail, discipline, data analysis, visual creativity, etc.), don’t really translate into this new responsibility of guiding and motivating individuals of different capability levels, interests and personality types. Results are no longer a function of your individual efforts and control. You now depend on others’ efforts and goodwill.
Moreover, while previously you had to respond to one boss, now both your boss and employees look at you for answers.
You have become a middle manager, a mediator of competing priorities.
The Role of Middle Management in Organizations
Normally, in an organization, the role of senior management is to define the long-term strategic vision and to make high-level decisions such as: What markets to enter or exit? What client segments to serve or stop serving? What are the best ways to finance operations? What kind of culture to foster? What product and services portfolio to offer? Etc.
Employees are there to execute tasks and optimize operations so that the company realizes the results expected by the strategy.
Middle management’s role is to translate the high-level, abstract vision into concrete actions and guide employees in their execution. Middle management is also expected to make operating decisions around the best approaches to serve each client segment, product features, workflow organization, system implementation to automate tasks or increase transparency, ways to cut costs and increase margins, etc.
In the ideal world, these roles and responsibilities are very clear, communication flows well and great visions lead to great results.
Most of us don’t work in the ideal world. Often, top management can’t agree on the right strategy (or on how to communicate it), keeps changing courses, or gets too involved in minor non-strategic aspects (like controlling the Travel & Entertainment budget).
Middle management is left to clean up the mess of confusing messaging, haphazard decision-making and urgent requests from the top while responding to employee demands and complaints.
Managing up is a must-have skill for any manager
The middle is not an easy place to be in.
On one hand, you need to make sense of competing priorities and requests and cascade them down in a way that will generate results for the company. On the other hand, you need to keep employees happy and motivated while doing things they may not necessarily want, can or are interested in doing so that they deliver the said results.
One of the most important things that new managers need to master quickly is managing up for themselves and their teams.
Here are three tips on how to do this better.
Learn to say “No!” more often
As a leader, you may try to, but you can’t keep everyone happy.
Of course, you want to prove yourself to your bosses and may avoid saying no because you are afraid to disappoint them. You want your employees to like you and may take on the work that they are unable or unwilling to do.
Not every demand from the top is worth passing on to your team. In many organizations, what is urgent and important changes every hour, while the work required to meet these priorities may take days. A great manager knows when to say “No!” and push back on requests. Your role is to not just cascade down but to protect your team from overloading and unnecessary reworks.
Avoid the pitfall of making pushbacks personal: “I can’t do this because my team will be annoyed” or “But we worked so hard last time, why are we getting this additional request?”
Instead, focus on the company’s strategic objectives: “You previously mentioned that the priorities of the business are x,y,z. What is the relevance of request abc for these priorities? Are you ok with us deprioritizing x to achieve abc? If you’d like us to do both, I will need additional resources such as...”)
At times you will need to be the bearer of bad news about things that cannot be pushed back. Some important work projects are tedious, urgent deadlines need to be met, top management’s approach may disappoint or not make sense to employees, employees may underperform or simply slack off.
Your employees may not like it, but they will respect you if you consistently articulate your expectations and rationale and treat them fairly.
You are ultimately accountable for your team’s outcomes. Good or Bad.
As the manager, you will be held accountable for outcomes that may not really depend on you. It may feel unfair but it’s why they are now paying you the big(ger) bucks.
When things go wrong, many managers get too stressed out and start looking for someone to blame before they can be blamed themselves. Strong leaders keep calm and take responsibility for the situation. Your role, in this case, is to review what had happened together with the team and identify what could be done better next time to avoid repeated problems.
When things go right, give credit and talk up your team members. Even though you may be trying to make yourself good, having a great team already makes you look good. Plus, it will be a huge motivator for your employees to continue to do better.
One caveat: beware of the risk of inheriting the wrong team. Not all teams are born alike and distributed fairly. Depending on your place in the pecking order, you may inherit a team without the relevant experience for the scope of the work. It’s a Catch-22 because you can’t improve the team’s performance or replace the individuals and later will get blamed for not delivering results.
To prevent this risk, it’s important to do due diligence about the team configuration and the autonomy you’d have in hiring individuals that will have the right fit.
This is not always possible. If you are stuck with an underperforming team, make sure you highlight all the efforts you’ve made to improve performance and continue negotiating additional resources. Don’t take the blame and assume responsibility for something that was out of your control.
Be a shield but not a brick wall between your team and management
On one of my rotations as a young trainee in a bank, my boss told me to call a managing director in one of our international offices to get some relevant information.
When I called the said director, in lieu of information, I received a barrage of rude comments before he hung up on me.
You may or may not know this about traditional banks’ organizational cultures but they tend to be very hierarchical. Although it was a good exposure to be calling senior people to discuss, it was an utterly ineffective way to get the information given the context.
In the following months, I was very apprehensive about calling people I didn’t know in the company. I also avoided my boss as much as possible because I didn’t feel like he had my back.
In another rotation with another boss, I got invited to participate in high-profile meetings as an apprentice, taking notes, and asking questions safely behind the scenes. This experience was much less traumatic and therefore conducive to learning.
As a manager, you need to give your employees exposure to at least some senior management conversations. They will do a better job and be motivated to perform if they know the bigger context they are part of. In the longer term, exposure is also crucial for career growth. If people don’t know them in the organization, they will have a hard time getting new opportunities.
Alternatively, you don’t want to ruin your reputation by having your junior employee make rookie questions or comments in an important meeting with senior management. You may also want to protect them from being scolded by a stressed-out senior executive should they mess up.
It’s a fine balance of protecting employees and giving them the exposure necessary for professional growth. Instead of completely blocking junior employees from participating in any strategic conversations, expose them gradually.
Have them shadow you in important meetings and spend 5 minutes debriefing the discussions afterward (for example: what did you understand? What did you learn? How would you approach this?).
You can also selectively choose safer opportunities for getting face time with senior management and coach your employees before they present or participate.
In sum, managing upward for your team is not always easy but it will pay off handsomely over time as you grow in your career and build bigger and better high-performing teams.