Working in the middle is tough.
Your boss has priorities. Your direct reports have questions. Peers and colleagues may be asking you for help or even tossing extra projects to you.
Working hard and helping others has gotten you this far in your career, but you may need something more to keep advancing.
“Often people find themselves taking on more work and trying to play the middle man between the competing priorities that exist within the organizational structure,” says Lisa Sinclair, CCL’s Senior Faculty and Portfolio Manager for the Americas. “They perceive what’s going on in the organizational system as being personally motivated as opposed to the way the system operates.”
And that’s the key, Sinclair says.
Though you may feel pulled personally in a dozen directions, the truth is that’s often the system — you just happen to be in the middle of it. Managers in the middle may be vice presidents, directors, general managers, plant managers, regional managers, or divisional managers. But the pressures are similar regardless.
The key to succeeding — and retaining your sanity — is learning to navigate that system. Based on decades of our research and real-world experience, we now know that involves a 6-factor framework. Those 6 key skills are:
- Thinking and acting systematically
- Learning agility
Those who are able to harness these 6 skills to manage organizational complexity can “lead from the middle.” They are also more likely to advance, less likely to experience career derailment, and better able to manage not only work obligations, but family, community, and personal demands as well.
Advancing Through Leadership
Many managers seeking to “lead from the middle” have been rewarded in their careers so far for their ability to effectively and productively take on greater responsibilities and more work.
But often, these managers find that their ability to succeed purely through their own efforts is reaching its limits. As they become more focused on leadership, they must learn how to get things done through others.
“The higher up you go, the more you have to learn to work through other people and influence the system,” Sinclair says.
Our Leadership Development Program, the longest-running program of its kind, is designed to help middle managers make this leap and become more effective leaders.
Program participants learn to:
- Bridge the gap between senior management and the front line.
- Lead across organizational or geographic boundaries.
- Collaborate with others, including those with different communication styles, personalities and backgrounds.
- Manage stress, build resilience, and leverage multiple life roles.
- Solve complicated problems and take wise action in a complex, rapidly changing environment.
“In the program, participants have an opportunity to experience life at different levels in the organization,” Sinclair says. “We see it as taking down the walls across the organization to really learn what it’s like to sit in those different seats so you can have a greater and deeper appreciation for how the organization really works.”
Seeing other perspectives helps those leading from the middle understand that the demands on them aren’t personal, but the result of how organizations work. And how nearly all organizations work is predictable, Sinclair says.
Ambitious managers often find their family and personal lives become more stressful around the same time their careers start putting them in higher-pressure jobs.
“Leaders at this level are around the age where their stress is not just at the office,” Sinclair says. Young children and aging parents can squeeze mid-career professionals. And no matter what anyone says about keeping home life and work life separate, pressure from one easily seeps into the other.
That’s why, Sinclair says, resilience is among the most important skills for mid-level leaders to master.
“If you aren’t any good for you, then you aren’t any good for anybody else,” she says. “There are a lot of self-care elements in this program that help these managers learn how to position themselves in all the different areas of their lives.”
Simply put, one of the keys to success is continuing to move forward and doing your best — even when things get tough. Resilience is a learnable skill that enables people to be successful despite stress and uncertainty.
Resilience reduces the risk of leaders burning out professionally, and also ensures they’re doing what they need to with their health and their families to be truly successful.
“We teach them strategies and tactics to ease their own stressors yet still be very successful at getting the work done,” Sinclair says.
Does this sound like a good fit for you or someone in your organization? Learn more about the Leadership Development Program (LDP®) or explore all our face-to-face leadership development programs.