Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 191 – The 11 Core Skills For Great Middle+ Managers

Dear leaders, middle management is either the most rewarding or the hardest career phase.

Middle management should play a critical role within every organisation, unfortunately, many big tech companies have removed the middle manager and the ripple effects of how middle management can be seen is making many companies question the importance of middle managers. 

The Glue & Translator 

I am a huge advocate of the right layers of leadership within businesses, middle managers should be the glue to organisations, middle management should be the area of the business that filters decisions and applies to their team(s) and middle management should translate their plan into the company strategy and then has been able to connect the dots for their team to how they are impacting the business. 

Awareness Of The Business Finances Is Critical 

In today’s business world, if you are not in a place to have a healthy number of middle managers you will likely have a high level of staff turnover and department leads with too many direct reports.  

If you are reading this and think my business needs more middle managers, be fully aware of the financial demands on your business and operational efficiencies that have had to be made to keep several team members over a middle manager. 

If you do not know or struggling to understand this, speak to your leadership team and get under the skin of the business model and dynamics. This is what a good leader will want and shows your potential leadership skills. 

The Good Of Middle Management 

You have likely experienced a great (team or department) manager who was not the most senior within a business, who understood you, knew when you were having a bad day and understood how you liked to be praised and when to provide you feedback.

The Bad & The Ugly Of Middle “Managers”

You could have also experienced the power-hungry middle manager who put themselves first and would play the blame game, blaming everyone around them for bad results, for not evolving and not acknowledging their team when the team does a great job or delivers something that improves company performance. 

Evolution Before Revolution? 

The “role” of the middle manager has not changed too much, however, the demands have escalated particularly in the recent waves of layoffs, from managing small teams to some managing teams of 100 and having limited managers beneath them to support and shield them. 

A middle manager in other businesses has been pushed into more delivery as much as management and this is creating blurred lines. 

Remember, what happens in big tech is often replicated in smaller businesses and aspiring businesses and this creates a big divide between what management is and what are the expectations. 


The Core Skills & Traits For Great Middle Managers

How about I talk you through the best 11 traits and skills I have experienced and witnessed throughout my career and gathered feedback from 1000s of hours of interviews. This will help you to work through what you are good at and what you need to develop. 

  1. Communication – being able to communicate simply, cut through noise and help to set direction with their communication. They also change their communication style based on who they are talking to and on the platforms that make the most sense  
  2. Feedback – have the ability to deliver important feedback whether that is positive or negative. Being able to deliver in-the-moment feedback and creating no-surprise feedback is what makes the difference between a good and bad middle manager 
  3. Skill Development – improving their team members’ skills and improving the teams’ skill base is a vital skill middle managers have and knowing how to improve yourself or recommending training is a key skill  
  4. Time – a skill all the great team and department managers have had is creating time, managing deadlines, creating time to discuss potential problems and issues and managing their time effectively is what only the greatest managers have (particularly important as a team lead or a department head) 
  5. Deep Business Knowledge – the elite middle managers know they have to balance the personal (team members) and the business demands, often being able to inform the team of how the business operates and know good or bad decisions from the team will impact the revenue lines or cost the company 
  6. Motivation – personal and team motivation is often overlooked and underplayed, being able to motivate a team that is struggling with performance anxiety and when the team has lost a team member or headcount has been decreased. 
  7. Empathy – EQ is now widely known as a powerful leadership skill, empathy is a core component of EQ and middle managers have to show empathy, not just to their team members but also to the business. Being empathic to both needs is often overlooked and undervalued
  8. Reduce Headwinds And Create Tailwinds – this is a leadership skill that very few proactively work on, this is a core workstream in my exec coaching, understanding how “leaders” reduce headwinds for their team(s) and for the business, while how to keep the momentum going and create tailwinds, often by motivating their team to keep pushing or keep delivering high-quality work. If you want to be a business leader or go into exec teams one thing that will make you truly stand out is being able to reduce headwinds (get people out of the way, get yourself out of the way, add yourself into a problem you can uniquely solve, add people to problems, kill a part of a project etc).  
  9. Decision Making – some middle managers feel like they cannot make core decisions which is not the case. Decision-making and making hard decisions are part of parcel of your daily life as a middle manager, knowing when to dial up and dial down decisions and escalate decisions is something middle managers have to work on and the best know when to get help or be the help. Something many mature middle managers demonstrate is being able to make smart judgment calls. Judgement calls are decisions being made when you might not have the data but you have a feel for something, this is also part of your management development
  10. Cross-functional Collaboration – the worst middle managers do not and will not play cross-functionally, this is criminal and has a detrimental impact on your team(s) and the business. The best middle managers know cross-functional is key to success, even when the two department heads might not have the best working relationship or often competing for a promotion into the next layer of leadership  
  11. Resiliency – most likely the skill as a middle manager or previous middle manager you will resonate with most, you have to have a high level of resilience as a middle manager, you have the hardest management role within any organisation and you will feel helpless and alone and on other days you will lose people to other opportunities because you invested so much time and energy developing them to the next level of their career.  

The best leaders in the world learn to develop themselves and those around them, the best managers study the art of management and then apply their learnings and teach the painful (and the good) lessons to their team members. 

A great middle manager doesn’t just positively impact their team(s) or department but has a real influence on the business and in unique cases, creates a standard of management for other managers to buy into and apply. 

This week’s focus actions are to 

  1. Re-review the 11 middle management traits and skills 
  2. Evaluate yourself, consider creating a professional SWOT analysis (aka the management SWOT) and 
  3. Work through which you excel and which you have to work on. One running theme you will notice upon doing this is – these traits are true leadership traits and the best CEOs and founders demonstrate these every week. 

Thanks and have a great week ahead, 

Danny Denhard