Tisha’s Insights

The Undervalued Magnificence of the Middle Manager

January 11, 2023 Tisha Schuller & Anne Kurtis
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For decades, we’ve seen middle managers portrayed on television and in movies as beleaguered stoics in the face of many obstacles, often humorous ones. In the past few years, middle managers have been the focus of headlines, claiming they are “feeling the squeeze,” “exhausted,” and a “dying breed.”

The attention is timely! Middle managers play a vital role in every company, but those leaders who are building and executing their 10-year Real Decarbonization ® strategies need their middle managers more fit and focused than ever before.

Both of these things are true:

  • You as a leader depend on middle managers for so much — to cultivate your company’s talent, innovate, and implement the strategies required for your success.
  • Middle managers are being asked to accomplish more with fewer resources, creating retention issues that may put your company’s plans at risk.

The situation

Middle managers wear many hats and are necessary to meeting all your company goals. And as you formulate your Real Decarbonization ® planning, you need to focus on the key roles your middle managers play and the challenges they face. First, note the things they do that are especially relevant to Real Decarbonization ®:

  • They translate leadership vision into day-to-day execution. Because middle managers bridge the gap between upper management and front-line workers, they are charged with implementing strategies, policies, and work plans that they did not create. Savvy and well-resourced middle managers build buy-in and participation as they translate company vision to day-to-day execution — a skill that will be essential to making your Real Decarbonization ® plan a reality.
  • They drive recruiting and retention. Oil and gas companies require an ever-evolving, innovative, and talented workforce. Middle managers are crucial in defining individual roles and motivating team members to excellence. Beyond their significant individual workload — because what middle manager isn’t also executing work? — they serve as coaches, mentors, cheerleaders, and therapists to much of the workforce. These responsibilities usually extend into recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and training as well. And these responsibilities make them the day-to-day face of Real Decarbonization ® for your workforce.
  • They are the conduit to a strong company culture. If a company’s mission, vision, and values are lived in day-to-day operations, it’s because the middle manager shepherds them. Initiatives, such as safety, mental health, volunteerism, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, blossom under strong middle managers. As I write in my latest book, Real Decarbonization ®, working with your company’s culture instead of against it is critical to your successful Real Decarbonization ® transition.
  • They connect otherwise disparate worlds. Middle managers make an organization run smoothly between hierarchies. The C-suite and the front line often have very different motivations and perceptions of what is achievable. The board occasionally sets goals that are very difficult to achieve, without input from those charged with implementation. Individual contributors may be bucking for innovative solutions that senior executives aren’t ready to take on. The middle manager balances these competing priorities, communicating issues and ideas up and down the hierarchy. And you will need their help at managing tensions as you integrate Real Decarbonization ® into your company.

But the upheaval in our energy world creates new challenges for middle managers:

  • They’re getting the squeeze. While responsible for the execution of their own and their teams’ work, middle managers are often beholden to others’ expectations, deadlines, and schedules.
  • Unsurprisingly, they are fried. Research published in Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal shows middle managers are facing the highest levels of burnout of any corporate level — burnout that can result in 32 percent lower productivity and 60 percent worse ability to focus.
  • Their resources are dwindling as their responsibilities pile up. Middle managers are often plagued by administrative burdens while repeatedly being asked to do more with fewer people and resources. In many cases, they aren’t adequately trained for many of their growing responsibilities.
  • Both the hybrid and return-to-work models suck for middle managers. All those work options post pandemic exacerbated the strain on middle managers. As Fast Company describes, they are charged with implementing unpopular policies while overseeing complex working arrangements. A Future Forum study found that many executives are making future-of-work plans with little to no direct input from their employees. Evolving workplaces mean middle managers require new skills and support — for example, for assessing employee performance in novel ways, such as on remote-work outcomes rather than in-person hours.

Seize the day

As a game-changing leader, you can further distinguish your leadership by explicitly engaging with and supporting your middle managers in the following ways:

  • Listen. Prioritize listening sessions with middle managers to build trust, understand what they are facing, and gather the (amazing!) ideas they have. As you work on your Real Decarbonization ®strategic priorities and initiatives, these sessions can be vital to buy-in and success. If your middle managers are unsure how best to participate, suggest prompts to get them thinking. The burden of gathering their insights and solutions during your Real Decarbonization ® planning and transition should fall on you, not them.
  • Train. Bolster training to make sure middle managers have the skills they need to serve as mentors, coaches, managers, and delegators. Ensure they have adequate context, skills, and support to implement challenging initiatives and policies that may stretch them beyond their core competencies. If those resources don’t exist, ensure they have the latitude and capacity to self-train or find resources. Last, ensure middle managers are trained to influence both upward and downward to successfully serve as connectors.
  • Focus on outcomes. Real Decarbonization ® is about outcomes — and with many competing priorities and hybrid work environments, your focus on your middle managers’ outcomes above all else will give them the flexibility to achieve your company goals with less bureaucracy and constraints. In turn, they will feel empowered to focus on outcomes — Real Decarbonization ® and otherwise — rather than on hours spent managing their own teams.
  • Invest. There is no more important return on investment than the one on investment in middle managers — especially in the era of Real Decarbonization ®. Provide them the administrative, IT, and training support to alleviate their day-to-day challenges. Invest in developing peer mentorship opportunities to provide psychological and coaching support. Make sure they have the tools to implement all of your corporate strategies — including Real Decarbonization ®.
  • Embrace transparency. Real Decarbonization ® work will require clear channels of feedback, buy-in, and communication between you, your middle managers, and your workforce. So take stock of your leadership style to gauge whether you are an available executive. If you rarely hear feedback from middle management on your company’s strategic initiatives, make adjustments to your processes to create clear opportunities for that engagement. Provide clarity on the outcomes you are seeking and the “why” behind the strategy to garner buy-in and help middle managers communicate directives.

Addressing the challenges facing middle managers is a crucial step in embarking on Real Decarbonization ®. Adamantine offers assessments and leadership coaching to help you address the critical components of your ESG and decarbonization strategies. Reach out today for a consultation. Thanks to Anne Kurtis, partner and director of client strategy & sustainability at Adamantine, for her work on this piece.

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Both of These Things Are True

By Tisha Schuller