A Survival Guide for Middle Managers (and the Zombie Apocalypse)

Stuck in the Middle With You: A Middle Manager’s Survival Guide

Early in your career, it’s the next rung of the ladder as you climb your way to CEO.

With more experience, it’s likely remembered as a pivotal time in your development as a leader.

Middle management positions have undoubtedly been a tough career milestone for many throughout the decades. These rising leaders are tasked with supervising the execution of the organizational strategy on a day-to-day basis.

Having to translate this strategy into tactical reality is a true leadership challenge, and no one knows the struggles more than those middle managers who are in the hot seat. They are forced to live with one foot on each side of the organizational dynamic, serving as the liaison between the big picture and actually getting things done.

The Challenges of Middle Management

Many of the challenges middle managers have grappled with in past decades are still present today. And the pace of business nowadays has put even more pressure on these stalwarts of the corporate world. The lines between professional and personal life continue to become increasingly fuzzy. Operational tempo has reached fevered pitch in many industries, and today’s middle managers are forced to work in environments that are ever changing and more complex.

Many in these mid-level roles are also learning to manage a multi-generational workforce, which brings its own set of challenges to the table.

Brooke Rufo-Hill, of Seattle University, supports and develops middle managers through the Contemplative Leaders in Action (CLA) program for emerging leaders. She points out that “Millennials now represent the largest share of the US workforce (1 in 3 workers), and they’re pushing supervisors to be more transparent, decentralized, and collaborative. Middle managers will need to learn strategies to supervise a new generation.”

According to leadership development expert Renny Bloch, “many managers are never given the tools or training to manage. They typically rise through the ranks of a technical track and then—all of a sudden—are given a team to manage and are expected to do so effectively. In particular, they struggle with the soft skills: giving feedback, setting expectation, developing their team, and managing conflict.”

Bloch also notices that “many middle managers struggle to manage up. Often, they don’t have all the information they need to make informed decisions. Or in some cases, they are never told why a decision was made from upper management. They are then put in the position to ‘sell’ the change/decision to their team.”

So, how do middle managers not only survive, but learn to thrive in their roles? How can they use this pivotal leadership challenge as a way to refine their leadership “chops” for the future?

The answer to this question generated some interesting responses that looked strikingly like a list of tips for surviving a zombie apocalypse (go figure!).

How Survive in Middle Management (And The Zombie Apocalypse We All Know Is Coming)

Stuck in the Middle With You: A Middle Manager’s Survival GuideLet’s begin by understanding the similarities between middle management and the impending apocalypse.

Mass chaos and panic, a governance system that can’t possibly support the needs of everyone in its stead, and “people” out to get you.

Those in middle management positions today may face similar situations or feelings: constant changes, a lack of clarity from the top, peers attempting to jockey for position.

Sound familiar? If so, here are a few tips that may just help you get out alive.

Rule #1: It’s never too early to begin preparing. The Boy Scouts may have something with their motto, “Be prepared”. Although we love to poke fun at the neighbor who spends their days stockpiling canned beans in their underground bunker, they’ll certainly have the last laugh when the revenants come down the street and start walking all over your petunias.

Make the decision to begin preparing for success as a middle manager BEFORE your first day in the new role. Take note of what successful middle managers in your organization are doing (or not doing). Read as much as you can get your hands on. Take advantage of every development opportunity you can.

Rule #2: Don’t get caught up in the panic and don’t turn on your friends. The pressures of surviving the apocalypse can make even the most civil and diplomatic of humanity show their ugly side. Fatigue, confusion, fear, and a lack of support can all add up and take its toll. Before you know it, your friends have now left you behind to save their own hides.

As a mid-level leader, things can tend to go sideways on you if you’re not careful. Trying to manage all of the dynamic tensions that exist can put even the best of us in a state of panic from time to time. Don’t let emotions get the best of you. Work to build supportive partnerships and networks. Or, at the very least, make sure you’re not the slowest runner of the group.

Rule #3: Have a backup plan for everything. One thing about zombies is that they tend not to cooperate with what you want them to do. If you don’t have a contingency plan or two up your sleeve, you’ll likely end up being lunch.

When doing your best to execute on the organizational strategy, day-to-day efforts aren’t always going to work out as you intended. Being prepared for contingencies will help keep you sharp and keep you prepared to flex as things go “off plan”.

Rule #4: Get creative. During the dawn of the dead, you’ll likely have to be creative about where your next meal will come from. You can’t expect someone to hand over their rations, and the local McDonald’s likely won’t be serving Big Macs at the drive-thru. It’s time to get creative and to do what you need to do to survive.

Some look at their experience as a middle manager as a game of survival. Others view it as a challenge to learn to thrive in. But thriving in an environment that is full of potential pitfalls can be tough. Things don’t usually play out the way you plan in your head. That can’t stop you. When others stop and pause, it’s your chance to move to action and lead. That will take being creative, adapting to changes in the environment and finding new paths to success.

Rule #5: Know your team. When the walking dead are around every corner, its important to have each others’ backs. You depend on each other for survival, so its critical to establish trust with your group.

Similarly, as a middle manager, you’re going to depend on your team for success. Making a real effort to understand the people you team with can make all the difference. Brian Lownds, Manager of Organizational Effectiveness at JetBlue Airways, advises middle managers to take the time to authentically connect with each of their employees, both formally and informally.

“Holding meetings to review goals or progress on metrics connects employees with the results of their efforts and provides meaning to their work. Taking time every day to connect with members of the team on a personal level shows that you value them as people and builds the goodwill necessary for weathering times when you need to ask more of them to meet new demands.”

Rule #6: Learn quickly or perish. As any zombie outbreak survivor will tell you, the chances that you’ll get a second chance to make the same mistake are slim. In order to survive you’ll need to learn and adapt quickly.

Success in middle management is quite similar. This is an opportunity to develop skills at a rapid pace, and you’ll need to get accustomed to learning on the fly. There is usually little time to stop and smell the roses.

Rule #7: Travel light. There’s a saying in the military: Ounces lead to pounds and pounds lead to pain. Don’t carry a lot of baggage because it’ll weigh you down. Being slow is probably not going to earn you any points during the apocalypse.

This goes for mental baggage as well. Inevitably, you’ll make mistakes. Learn from them and move forward. Carrying the weight of your mistakes as a middle manager can really begin to weigh you down. Take them seriously and take your lessons with you. Just don’t let them drag you down.

Rule #8: It’s a marathon not a sprint. When hordes of walking dead are on a relentless quest to eat your brain, the operative word is relentless. They don’t stop. Ever. Your approach has to be one of endurance. Otherwise, you’ll be joining the ranks of the shambling undead before you know it.

Your experience as a middle manager is not a sprint either. If you approach it with a short-sighted, immediate-term mindset, and try to gut your way through tough times, you may find yourself falling short.

Brooke Rufo-Hill says to “pause and breathe throughout the workday. Step away from your desk periodically throughout the day and cultivate a practice of ‘reflecting on the go’.” Some ways you can do this are to walk slowly and intentionally (don’t run) to meetings, and to step away from your computer and take the “biggest/deepest breath you’ve taken today.”

Rule #9: Don’t go it alone. When the undead hordes come-a-calling, there is power in numbers. Finding a good group to partner with can help bring valuable skills and companionship to help you thrive when things may seem to be going south.

Leadership in business doesn’t have to be a solo sport either. Finding a peer group or an experienced mentor to help you translate your day-to-day challenges into learning opportunities can provide the support system you need to really thrive in a middle management role.

Building your own professional support network with other middle-managers, and to initiate/engage in peer coaching can help provide the support you need, according to Rufo-Hill.

What Can Organizations Do to Support These Managers?

Leaving middle managers to fend for themselves can (unsurprisingly) set them up for failure. And there are many ways organizations can help support these developing leaders.

Brian Lownds says that organizations should create “a clear mission and set of guiding principles, espoused and demonstrated by senior leadership. People want to connect to something bigger than themselves. Providing an aspirational reason for coming to work each day and firm values to guide decisions and actions helps provide meaning and encourages going above and beyond to live up to these aspirations.”

Renny Bloch suggests, “organize a forum where middle managers can come together and discuss their everyday challenges and concerns and learn from their peers who have, or are, struggling with similar issues.These forums could be anchored around a topic (e.g. having difficult conversations).”

Rufo-Hill adds that organizations should “invest in leadership development of managers, not only in building managerial skills. Create a learning environment where managers are engaged in the training/development of their direct reports and their ‘next-level manager’ (NLM) is engaged and supportive of their own learning and development.”

Will You Survive, Or Thrive?

While middle management may sometimes feel like the end of the world, the good news is the real zombie apocalypse is not yet upon us.

Whether your excited about the opportunity or not, your position as middle manager provides a unique platform to show meaningful value to your organization and your team. It’s an opportunity for you develop your own leadership acumen. And it’s an opportunity to not only survive, but embrace the challenge and thrive.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

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Chris Cancialosi

Chris Cancialosi

Partner at gothamCulture
Chris Cancialosi is a recognized expert in the field of leadership and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture.
Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever changing business landscape.
Chris Cancialosi