The Joy of Middle Management

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So you’ve finally made it to middle management. You’ve arrived at that magical place where you are responsible and accountable for the performance of a team but you still have limited authority and influence in your organization. Welcome to the Danger Zone!

Why is it so dangerous? Because, if you are not careful, this is where careers come to die. At least that’s the conclusion of Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. In a recent Harvard Business Review article called Why Middle Managers Are So Unhappy, they discovered the unhappiest employees are, in fact, middle managers.

They looked at data from 320,000 of the most unengaged and uncommitted employees from a variety of organizations and focused on the bottom 5%. They wanted to understand the driving factors behind the most disgruntled employees. What they found were people who were “stuck in the middle of everything.”

The most common profile for employees in the bottom 5% was:

  • They work as middle managers
  • They earned a college degree, but not a graduate degree
  • They have 5 to 10 years’ tenure
  • They receive a good (as opposed to a superior or a terrible) performance rating

The truth is, it can be tough if you find yourself “stuck” in middle management. It can lead to frustration and disillusionment, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If you have made it to middle management, it’s because someone thinks you have what it takes to lead people and that’s one of the greatest honors bestowed upon any individual. So how do you avoid getting “stuck” in the middle?

Let me suggest five things you can do as a middle manager to avoid becoming an unengaged, uncommitted, unhappy employee:

Contentment. One of the biggest causes for frustration for middle managers is the desire to be promoted to the next job. I’ve seen many managers so focused on trying to get to their next position that they never actually do their current job. Be content. You’ve been asked to lead people, lead them well. Enjoy your time as a middle manager.

Excellence. While you are in middle management, be excellent in everything you do. Instead of focusing on your next job, set your sights on mastering this one. If you can build a reputation for performing at a high level with a smaller organization, you will likely be considered for larger role.

Education. Mastering your job means learning everything you can about being a valuable leader in your company. Use your time as a middle manager to continue to educate yourself. Read business books, take courses that will strengthen your weaknesses, complete an advanced degree, complete an industry certification, join industry groups, volunteer for challenging assignments, or find a mentor in your company to learn from. Most companies offer a variety of ways to continue your education, take advantage of them all. The more you know, the more valuable you will be for your company.

Commitments. Become a trusted performer in your organization. Senior managers are looking for people who get things done. They are looking for leaders who do what they say they are going to do. Build a reputation for meeting your commitments and honoring your promises.

Exploration. Use your time in middle management to figure out where you get the most satisfaction out of your work. Is it executing a large project or landing a significant order? Is it leading a kaizen event or executing a new marketing strategy? Is it becoming a functional expert or focusing more on general management? Expose yourself to as many diverse opportunities as you can to learn what you really enjoy doing. This will help prepare you for what you really want to do in your next assignment.

Middle management doesn’t have to be a place where careers go to die. With the right attitude and focus, your time in middle management can be the best years of your work life. It’s a time where you can master the art of leading people, learn to perform at a high level, continue your education, build a reputation for meeting commitments, and explore what you really enjoy doing. The key is to become a trusted and valuable asset to senior management. Does it mean that doing these things will get you promoted to the next level? Maybe or maybe not. What it will do is give you a lot more satisfaction in your job and keep you away from that bottom 5% of unengaged, uncommitted, unhappy employees.

So, what do think? Is it possible to avoid getting “stuck?” Are there other things that can be done to avoid the middle management trap? How much does your boss or company influence your ability to continue to grow? What options do you have if you find yourself stuck?

Is it Time for the Introverted Leader?

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What type of individual makes a great leader? The answer to that question is likely to cause a debate in any social circle. The truth is, leaders are people and people come in all shapes and sizes. Most people think of the stereotypical leader as someone who is confident, charismatic, outgoing, and larger-than-life; but what about the introvert? Can introverts make great leaders?

Jessica Stillman tackles this question in a great article in Inc.com called 7 Reasons Introverts Make Great Leaders. In the article she warns about being seduced by charisma and overlooking more quiet individuals. She explains that, “introverted personality types come equipped with significant leadership advantages.” Her seven reasons make a lot of sense:

  1. They’re better listeners
  2. They’re better prepared
  3. They go deep
  4. They don’t mind solitude
  5. They keep their cool
  6. They don’t settle
  7. They write more

In fact, this is exactly what Jim Collins found when researching his landmark business book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. In that book, Jim and his team researched 1,500 companies and identified 11 that made the leap from being good companies to ones that outpaced the market for a significant period of time. In working to determine all the factors that led to these remarkable transformations, he discovered something unique in the leadership traits of their CEOs. They were not the charismatic, outgoing types but had quiet, almost shy, personalities.

This “paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will,” which he called Level 5 Leadership, was always present in the CEOs of companies that made the leap to a great company. As I wrote in a previous article, What Level is your Leadership?, there is extensive evidence that charismatic, extroverted CEOs have the ability to improve their companies in the short-term, but long-term transformation only occurs with a Level 5 Leader at the helm.

Jim explained Level 5 Leadership in greater detail in an HBR article called Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve. The leadership qualities of personal humility and professional will he called the “yin and yang” of Level 5 Leadership.

Level 5 leaders demonstrate personal humility:

  • They are modest, shunning public adulation; never boastful.
  • They act with quiet, calm determination; relying principally on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.
  • They channel their ambition into the company, not themselves; they set up successors for even more greatness in the next generation.
  • They look in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors, or bad luck.

Level 5 leaders demonstrate professional will:

  • They demonstrate an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results, no matter how difficult.
  • They create superb results and are the clear catalyst in the transition from good to great.
  • They set the standard of building an enduring great company; they will settle for nothing less.
  • They look out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company—to other people, external factors, and even good luck.

While I still believe leaders come in all shapes and sizes, there is an argument to be made for the introverted leader. Introverted leaders come equipped with significant leadership advantages and, if combined with a deep relentless will to succeed, they can lead companies to remarkable transformations. So, what do you think? Is the stereotypical model of the charismatic leader wrong? Are we ignoring more introverted employees as potential leaders? Are there times when organizations need an extroverted leader and times when an introverted leader is needed?

10 Step Guide to Lead your Team into the New Year

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If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else. – Yogi Berra

It’s a new year and a fresh start for you and your team. It’s also one of the most important times for you as a leader. While it’s fun reminiscing about 2014, it’s critical that you quickly align your leadership team and total organization to focus on the goals for 2015.

Having a clear, concise, well-communicated set of goals for your organization has many benefits:

  • It aligns the team at all levels
  • It focuses the team on the right priorities
  • It sets the benchmark to measure performance
  • It can be used to establish incentives and drive behavior
  • It defines what success looks like in the new year

The problem is that most companies fail to focus on a clear set of goals for the year. David Leonard and Claude Coltea wrote in a recent Gallup article that, “The problem is that in too many companies, front-line employees receive dozens of high-priority messages — some complementary, some competing — from executives, managers, and change leaders each day. These conflicting messages make it difficult for workers to know what tasks or metrics they should focus on during a given day.” This lack of focus creates confusion, added expense, and waste in any organization. This is why annual business planning is extremely important for every organization.

You might be thinking that it’s too late to conduct your planning session for the new year, but it’s actually the perfect time. I like to conduct my annual planning session right after the financial and operational metrics are finalized for the year, usually in mid January. Knowing the final numbers creates the perfect foundation for the planning session. The mid January timing is also good because, at this point, budgets are finalized, top down goals have been established, and mandated programs have already been made known.

The annual planning session is critical in developing a clear and concise set of goals for the new year. Ideally, it can be done in one day and I prefer to go off-site to minimize the disruptions. The session has ten easy steps:

  1. Review last year’s financial performance compared to budget
  2. Review last year’s key metrics compared to goals
  3. Review last year’s key initiatives compared to goals
  4. Conduct an honest assessment of the prior year: What went well? What went wrong? What do you need to more of? What do you need to improve on? What were some of the key lessons from the prior year?
  5. Review the new year’s financial budget and establish stretch targets. Build basic waterfall charts for order and profit growth to reach the stretch objectives
  6. Review any new mandated metrics and initiatives
  7. Develop the new year’s key metric goals
  8. Develop the new year’s list of key initiatives
  9. Get commitment from team
  10. Develop a one-page list of the new year’s goals– Key Financials, Key Metrics, and Key Initiatives to send to the leadership team

The discussions and debates during this process helps build consensus of the key lessons of the prior year as well as an agreement on the way forward in the new year. Being able to debate these issues increases the level of buy-in from team members as well.

The final output, a one-page list of the new year’s goals, becomes the guiding document for the new year. It is important this document is cascaded throughout the entire organization with front-line managers explaining the importance of each element in the plan. If done properly, you will quickly align your leadership team and total organization to focus on the goals for 2015.