Stuck in the middle with who?

in May 2017 we launched the  #OverTime podcast series, which is now available on iTunes.

The main aim of Overtime is to help with the feeling of isolation many managers face when starting out in their management career, by hearing from other managers and hearing about their experiences and personal tales of ‘been there, done that’. You can read more about why we started OverTime here or have a listen here.  

Our first guest was Rob Alderson, VP Editorial from Wetransfer. At his core, Rob is an arts journalist and his responsibility at Wetransfer is to curate the artwork that is featured on the site through the blog ThisWorks. Prior to Wetransfer, Rob was Editor and Chief at It’s Nice That. Rob manages a team of 5, but within Wetransfer, works at the intersection of content and marketing, an exciting place to be.  

Rob and I covered a lot of ground within the 25 minute podcast but we spent a lot of time on the feelings that come with being a ‘Middle Manager’.

Stuck in the middle with who?

Rob highlighted very eloquently the pros to being a middle manager. For him, it’s being between the strategic direction of the business and supporting his manager with that vision whist being hands on in executing on it through his team. This means you can connect to the two fundamental parts of a business. I’m sure many of us can relate to that.  

On the flip side, sitting in the middle of these two key pieces of the business can mean you get caught in the middle, and when those two teams (strategy and delivery) aren’t moving in the same direction, it’s the middle manager that bears the brunt. Rob described it as feeling like a cartoon character, where each foot is on two ice blocks moving away from each other and the outcome is that you fall crotch first into freezing water.

Therefore, for him, the key to middle management is to constantly link strategic direction to the day to day work. In order to do that, you have be really great at reading the pulse of the day to day teams. As middle managers are the go between, they end up hearing EVERYTHING that is wrong with the strategy or decisions made from ‘up top’. It can start to feel, as Rob describes, as ‘an emotional punching bag’. In order to stay above the line, middle managers need to filter what is actual problems worth listening to and raising over what’s just someone having a bad day or wanting to ‘vent’. Rob does that by sitting on complaints for a day or two to see if they are still valid, this is an excellent strategy for all managers to adopt. It’s amazing how time really does heal all sometimes.

As a middle manager it’s important to ensure what you are feeding upwards is constructive and helpful, and what you’re feeding downwards is clear and purposeful.  A lot of managers struggle to differentiate between the two and send everything upwards. This can be both damaging for the team as it creates the wrong perception of them and for the manager as it can feel like they don’t have control.

What’s helped Rob manage this very common problem of being stuck in the middle, which I sure middle manager’s everywhere can relate to, is that he has been fortunate enough to ‘drink the Kool-aide’ of where he’s worked to date. He believes in the strategic direction of the business, and believes his stakeholders are going about delivering that are good and have purpose (business leaders take note!).

Rob is obviously fortunate to be in this position as I know many aren’t able to drink the cool-aide. My suggestion for those that find themselves in the position where they can’t get behind the mission or vision of the business, or don’t believe in the way their managers conduct themselves, is to find a way to create their own ‘mini-mission’ for their team that is in line with the greater one but provides more purpose within the day to day.

The reality is, unless you are running your own private company, the trials of middle management will be your reality for the rest of your working career. It alleviates with time and experience, but there will always be challenges of being in the middle of two sometimes opposing teams. To hear how Rob has handled it, listen here.