If you are a mid- to senior-level manager — a leader of managers— have you ever wondered why your job is so complicated? You’re an experienced manager and an effective leader — and yet, leading in what CCL calls “the middle zone” is anything but easy.

“Leadership becomes more complex when you are leading from the middle of an organization for three big reasons,” says Michelle Malloy, global portfolio manager for CCL’s Leadership Development Program (LDP).

  1. You have the challenge of getting the top and the bottom of the hierarchy to work together. It is difficult to get those above you and those below you on the same page, aligned and committed to each other. In many ways, they live in different worlds. The result: You regularly get pulled in different directions, torn between what your boss and senior management thinks is important and what your direct reports and their groups think is important.
  2. You have the challenge of collaborating across the organization. In the middle zone you have to work with your peers (who are managing other functions and groups) to better align and integrate work across groups and generate shared commitment to broader organizational initiatives. While you have shared or overlapping work, you also have independent responsibilities handed down from above. You often compete for organizational resources and manage groups that have very different perspectives on the organization. The result: It’s hard to get on the same page and get committed to the same things. You may end up feeling isolated from your peers. Often there are so many demands placed on you by different groups, and little positive feedback, that you may begin to question your own competence.
  3. You have the challenge of a demanding job and demanding roles outside of work. When you are leading from the middle, you are also often in the middle of your life. In addition to your demanding job, you probably have multiple responsibilities outside of work—you might have children to nurture and raise, elderly parents to care for, spouses and partners you want to spend time with, commitments to volunteer organizations and your community, commitments to yourself to live a healthier and fuller life. The result: You are torn about where to put your attention and energy.

“But challenges managed well are opportunities,” says Malloy. “The middle zone is a place where you can gain great experience, be involved in interesting work, have significant organizational impact and develop leadership skills that serve you well throughout your career.”

Managers leading other managers are in the best position to translate between levels in the organization. “Usually it is the manager in the middle zone who can see both the long-term objectives at the top of the organization and the day-to-day issues at the bottom,” Malloy notes. They also are in the right place to collaborate with other experienced managers to generate new ideas and solve thorny problems. Often middle-zone roles are seen as among the most influential positions within the organization.

The personal tensions also hold opportunity. CCL research shows that managers who have multiple life roles tend to be more effective leaders than those who focus single-mindedly on work.

“The key is to know that the resources, insights and skills from one domain of your life can be helpful in other areas of your life,” explains Malloy. “For example, your off-the-job activities can recharge your batteries to deal with the stress and pressure of a demanding job. Or the interpersonal skills you develop at work can improve personal relationships. Life requires leadership resiliency.”

Skills for Leading from the Middle

What does it take to be an effective manager of other managers? To bridge the gap between senior management and the front line? To deal with the complexities of leading from the middle?

First, you need to build on your leadership fundamentals: self-awareness, learning agility, communication and influence. “The fundamental four are competencies that are needed to be effective at all levels and in all leadership roles,” says CCL’s Michelle Malloy. “For leaders in the middle layers of an organization, the four need to be refined or strengthened in the context of operating up and down the organizational hierarchy, as well as across functions and silos.”

Middle-zone leaders must also develop several competencies that are specific to their roles and leadership challenges. Participants in CCL’s Leadership Development Program (LDP), for example, focus on two essential competencies to manage organizational complexity:

  • Thinking and acting systemically: Seeing the big picture, seeing patterns in relationships and processes, dealing with the uncertainties and trade-offs that are part of the complexities of organizations.
  • Resiliency: Handling stress, uncertainty and setbacks well — in other words, maintaining equilibrium under pressure.

LDP also helps leaders in the middle zone assess and address other critical competencies, including negotiating, selecting and developing others, taking risks, implementing change and managing globally dispersed teams.

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