Leadership

Good Middle Managers Don’t Leave Fingerprints

Gerald Weinberg said in his Secrets of Consulting, “Never forget they’re paying you by the hour, not by the solution.” In other words, a consultant’s job is to help their client achieve goals. The client is the hero of their own story.

This is also true of a middle manager. Teams are the hero of their own story. Remove or shield obstacles in their path. Empower them to shape their missions. Open doors to direct conversation with stakeholders and end users.

For 15 years I worked at the VP/Director level for media companies in New York City. Over that time I built organizations, hired great people, translated vision into achievable plans, delivered critical projects, and expanded company missions.  

Several years ago, Gerry Laybourne, former CEO of Oxygen Media, held a reunion for our software development team. At Oxygen, what had started as three developers rebuilding the marketing website had evolved into a 15-person cross-functional team supporting mission-critical  systems and working directly with Gerry to build a consumer software product.

At some point in the day, we formed a circle. One by one, people reflected on one great thing about our time working together. People singled out Gerry for her creativity and vision and our engineering lead, Luke Melia, for his care and mentorship.

I felt my stomach clenching as the group shared their reflections. I felt disappointed. In my memory I’d placed myself at the center of this wonderful experience, but I wasn’t. Of course, that shouldn’t have surprised me. I had the extraordinary luck to work with talented people. Gerry and Luke were being celebrated for good reason.

Gerry is an exceptional leader with vision and determination. “I have often described myself as the steam roller out in front, making it possible for my teams to do their best work… (T)o me it was the organism of the team that made it so delicious…everyone fit in and wanted in.  You were learning just like I was learning.”

Luke, our team lead, showed me how to be a better manager, demonstrating the value of one-on-one conversations and facilitating our 360-degree review process. It’s Luke who grew our engineering team from two to ten and built a culture of pairing, testing, and self-organization.

With that talent around me, what was my contribution? Everything I can point to was a collaboration: designing an organization to meet the challenges our leaders set for us. Learning and putting in place new roles and capabilities—we transitioned an application support group into a product team. We added a Scrum master.  We negotiated accountabilities across disciplines of engineering, product, and design to give autonomy and accountability with collaboration. I worked as a partner with Luke and others when they needed support: managing people out, making accommodations like work from home, and tailoring goals to make the most of people’s strengths and interests. Then we removed obstacles so the team could perform.

The teams deserve the credit for their achievements, and the leaders deserve it for providing them with mission and purpose. As the middle manager, the more effective I was, the fewer fingerprints I left on the outcomes.

That doesn’t mean the work was easy. Zahira Jaser in her article “The Real Value of Middle Managers” describes the middle manager as a Janus (maintaining a “double gaze” on leaders and teams), a broker, a conduit, and a tightrope walker.

My job required taking personal accountability for things I couldn’t control. Mediating conflicts across the functions in the team. Competing with other departments for resources. Building and defending budgets. Working with senior executives who disagreed with what my team was trying to do or the way they wanted to work.

All this to foster a safe space for a leader and a team to collaborate on something new within a company, necessarily focused on the day-to-day.

As team leaders, middle managers are at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal flows of information in the company. They serve as a bridge between the visionary ideals of the top and the often chaotic market reality of those on the front line of the business. By creating middle-level business and product concepts, middle managers mediate between “what is” and “what should be.” They remake reality according to the company’s vision.

“The Knowledge-Creating Company” by Ikujiro Nonaka, Harvard Business Review, November 1, 1991; republished July/August 2007

As we continued around the room, I picked my ego off the floor, put my contributions in perspective, and focused on the gratitude I felt for the people around me. 

The more the teams own their accomplishments, the more they strive to attain them. The authority that comes with middle management is an opportunity to champion the success of the group and find joy in helping great people do their jobs well.