Get Shift Done: Management
And How To Avoid Them
Sandwiched between individual contributors and line managers on one hand and executives on the other hand, middle managers get satisfaction neither from tangible creation, nor from setting strategic direction. Instead, their role is to translate executive vision into an executable plan, hire/manage a team and set the processes and culture to ensure delivery.
In large corporations, middle management is the black hole where sizable input (brain power, time, $, energy) results in questionable output. It’s the place where careers stall and many former rising stars fizzle out. It’s also the layer — like our midriff — that has a tendency to expand stealthily, if kept unchecked.
What sets successful middle managers apart is that they excel at managing themselves.
They carve out a meaningful role for themselves, stay current and manage their own career journey. Here are some of the common death traps they successfully avoid:
Trap #1: Lose touch with team and product reality
When you first enter into middle management, you’re sharp and current — you know your company’s products, operational and organizational strengths and weaknesses, and the internal information channels. But that knowledge becomes obsolete very quickly and unless you maintain it diligently, you’ll not only become disconnected from reality, but you wouldn’t even know it. Also, as you move up the chain, information gets distorted before it gets to you — both intentionally and not, so you have to find ways to triangulate and validate data presented to you and draw your own conclusions.
- Establish key connections within your organization and get first-hand, unfiltered feedback from different parts of the team. You know those vocal and over-the-top employees who make managers cringe? They may lack polish, but they tend to vocalize what a lot of their peers think already. Talk to them.
- Prioritize working on side projects, along with select employees who sit deeper in your organization. Keep your hands dirty.
- Do spot deep-dives into your product, technology, and team.
- Create forums (e.g., internal hackathons) where existing hierarchy dissolves, so you can hear input outside of the traditional channels.
Trap #2: Lose touch with external reality
Signals from the marketplace don’t penetrate the walls of middle management easily. As shifts in the industry happen, they are often obscured and muffled. Your job is to not only detect these shifts but anticipate them. Keeping your finger on the pulse and staying slightly paranoid are a necessity, even if they’re not explicitly written in your job description.
- Talk to customers every week, even if your company doesn’t expect it or doesn’t provide a program for it. Find a way.
- Stay current on product and technology — both yours and industry’s — by reading news and blogs, following open source communities and attending events.
- Stay current on your competition — follow their product and press releases and executive interviews. Watch the contributions of their engineers to open source communities, blogs and other professional forums.
Trap # 3: Let vanity become your worst enemy
Companies have devised sophisticated systems appealing to your vanity to give you the illusion of career progress. You likely get an annual review, a performance score, 360 feedback and some guidance on how to grow. You’re offered new levels, titles, expanded teams, etc. Perhaps the layers between you and the CEO peel away slowly. Congratulations — you’ve worked hard and your efforts are paying off.
But this entire process is completely fabricated. The feedback you get is stale (and by the time you get it, neither you nor your manager can remember the specifics, let alone be in a position to take action) and irrelevant (as it comes from internal sources, not directly from your customers). The performance score is made to fit into a tight and unnatural framework, with little relation to how much you actually moved the company forward. And the title, team size, organizational position only occasionally have correlation to how much customer and shareholder value you’re actually creating.
- Enjoy the perks of the job, but don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re entirely constructed to appeal to your vanity and have no inherent meaning.
- Measure your progress, contributions, growth and worth using your own metrics that are relevant to your own goals and journey.
Trap #4: Fail to build executive skills
The skills required to move up into the executive ranks are different from what is required to be successful as a middle manager. In addition, competition for the top jobs is high. Without mindful and strategic planning, it’s hard to build up the experiences and tools required for the next level up.
- Be alert to special projects and other opportunities that expose you to executive responsibilities and provide practice for key skills. Build a portfolio of well-rounded experiences.
- Build a strong network of supporters and mentors across the executive ranks and express your explicit interest in growing into the next level.
Trap #5: Lose track of time
It’s easy to get stuck in middle management and lose track of the years going back. It’s also easy to lose perspective on whether the experiences and skills you’re building are relevant to the marketplace or if they’re too company-specific or in an area that is losing relevance.
- Take control of your career and critically evaluate how your skills and experiences compare to the market. Set check-in milestones for yourself.
- Stay connected with peers, mentors and trusted resources in the industry and continuously calibrate how you can be growing within your role and across roles/companies.
- Make lateral moves so you can diversify and round your experience.
Just because this article focuses on death traps, it doesn’t mean that middle management isn’t important or hard. It’s both. Strong middle managers have a combination of diverse and fine-tuned skills and intuition and can have material impact on the company, industry, customers and employees. If navigated well, middle management can offer meaningful and impactful opportunities that span decades.
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