3. Develop yourself.
Middle managers also need to focus on their own growth—especially since so many are thrust into the role.
“Becoming a middle manager is not always intentional,” says executive coach Leila Bulling Towne of The Bulling Towne Group and Awesome Leader. “You get a job, you’re doing great, and one day your boss says, ‘Hey, you’re a rock star—I’d love for you to lead a team.’ The vast majority of people say yes because it’s more money and a bigger title. All of a sudden they’re managing people, and they never actually sat down to think about what they want or need from their work.”
Middle managers who feel dissatisfied should have that conversation, Bulling Towne says. A manager at a software company, for example, might realize that she really loves coding. In addition to managing, she should look for special projects where she can contribute code and build that into her regular duties. Likewise, she should look for continuing education opportunities to maintain and improve her coding skills.
4. Make your superiors shine.
To thrive, middle managers must accept that their own success is dependent on their managers’ satisfaction.
“Whether you agree with them or not, make your boss’s priorities your own,” suggests Sternberg, who adds that young professionals and seasoned workers alike can rise within organizations by adopting and advancing their superiors’ agenda. “Your boss has an enormous impact on your career. No matter what generation a manager is in, making their priorities your own will serve you well.”
Try a customer-service approach to dealing with senior executives. “When you have a customer, you find out what their needs are, what they really value, and you make it your business to deliver on those. You should do the same thing with your boss,” he says.
Forget managing up, Jamail says. Instead, serve up.
“Serving up is not sucking up,” he insists. “Sucking up is manipulating people with your words. Serving up is doing what’s good for people. Your number-one job is to make your manager look good. If they give you direction you don’t agree with, seek to understand it. And if they’re wrong, fight to make it right— but do it to make them look good, not to prove them wrong.”
Serving executives requires building strong relationships with them. “Learn about the person, not just the title,” Bulling Towne advises.
Have coffee with senior leaders, make small talk with them before meetings and take notes about their interests and preferences that you can refer to later in conversations and correspondence. The goal is to determine what they want from your role and how you can be helpful to them.
5. Act like an executive.
If middle managers want to be treated like a senior leader—or perhaps even become one—a smart step is to behave like one.
“If I want to be promoted to senior leadership, one of the best things I can do is to understand what their attributes are,” Bulling Towne says.
Middle managers can build their leadership brand by deciding how they want to be perceived in their organization, then being purposeful about developing and demonstrating those qualities.
For example, senior leaders are often solution-oriented. Instead of complaining about ill-conceived direction middle managers receive from above, approach these executives with thoughtful alternatives.
Senior leaders also drive engagement and strategic thinking. They tend to be visionary, says Ujwal Arkalgud, CEO of MotivBase, an AI-powered consumer trends tool. He’s observed that middle managers tend to be more tactical than strategic.
“Because of the way they’re incentivized, middle managers are primarily concerned with achieving short-term gains,” Arkalgud says. “They don’t take a long-term view. As a result, there’s a huge gap between where the organization needs to go and where middle managers focus.”
Middle managers who find ways to align with the business’s objectives can cultivate a reputation for being forward-thinking and, in so doing, increase their organizational influence.
“This type of middle manager takes risks,” Arkalgud says, “but they’re also the ones who are winning more.”
Cover image by Tania Timkova/Stocksy