CXO

How to get out of a middle management rut

Middle management can sometimes be a lonely and stressful place. Here's how to figure out where to go from there.

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Image: iStock/g-stockstudio

Often described as the glue that keeps companies running because they translate senior level strategies into operational realities, a majority of middle managers still see themselves as functioning in a vacuum, often from a powerless position.

A variety of factors contribute to this.

In a December, 2016, article, Psychology Today described feelings of powerless as a breeding ground for feelings of "insecurity, anger and de-motivation." The magazine was discussing the feelings of citizens in the U.S. presidential election, but it could just as well have been describing the feelings of many middle managers, who feel "trapped" in their positions—where they daily see gross wastes of time and resources by their companies, yet feel that they have few viable inputs into upper management to do anything about it.

Middle managers' authority can also be undercut by their senior managers. UK business consultant Martin Webster describes micromanagers as individuals who undercut the authority of others and can't seem to "let go" of directly engaging in situations when they shouldn't be. "Micromanagement is just plain bad management," said Webster. "If you believe your team can't be trusted and can't do a proper job it won't be long before they believe you!" This aligns with one of my own bad experiences as a middle manager. I had an outstanding performer, but he refused to cross-train anyone else on my project team so we could broaden our skills and get some backup. He was protecting his turf, and I felt I had to intervene—but my senior manager went around me and told the employee to "never mind." I went back to my office and updated my resume.

Finally, sometimes there is little opportunity for advancement from a middle management position. A CEO at a small west coast manufacturing company whom I recently spoke with said he had seven VP's and 50 middle managers. Not all of these middle managers will have an opportunity to become a VP, and middle managers see this every day. If your goal is to rise to the top, what are your realistic chances? And if you remain in middle management, will you be happy long-term?

Antidotes for the middle management blues

So if these are the common challenges middle managers face, what are some of the antidotes?

Know what you want

I have known many middle managers who are happy with line management, and grateful that they don't have to get in front of boards and shareholders. At the other end of the spectrum are up-and-comers who want those challenges. What type of middle manager are you? It's important to have a serious "talk" with yourself to determine what makes you happy.

If you feel powerless, find a way to make things happen

During the time I was a CIO, we had major ERP (enterprise resource planning) system conversion, and also a mobile communications system to complete for our field technicians. Our department was maxed out, and there simply wasn't a way to schedule resources for the development of an RMA (return merchandise authorization) system that our warehouse wanted. Frustrated at not being able to help the users in the warehouse, my applications manager, a consummate programmer in his own right, came in one Monday with a system that he had written at home over the weekend for RMAs. He made us all look good. He had found a way to "make things happen" at a time when it didn't seem we could.

Form a network

It is important to form alliances with individuals within and outside of your organization. These are the people who can help you reach your goals.

Always carry yourself professionally

When the pressures of the job or your own personal disappointment begin to weigh on you, remember that your staff and others in the organization continue to look to you for leadership. Always do your job and do it well, even when you are looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Also see:
How to land the CIO job: 10 tips
Feeling stuck in middle management? Learning corporate strategy can help.
10 tips for achieving more with fewer resources, from the new book Stretch
How to find your next leadership job: 5 tips

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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