Managing in the middle is a difficult role, but done right it can play a crucial part in the operation of a successful early years setting, says James Hempsall OBE…
I have certainly found myself in middle management positions before, but having been ‘the boss’ for 20 years I’ve avoided some of these challenges for a while. That said, I often find myself occupying that difficult position of balancing the needs of a client with those of a team member. And I have recent memories of when having my own middle management team didn’t work so well.
Whatever your position, it can often feel like you’re caught in the middle, that space between competing agendas and needs. It can be defined by your place in an organisation’s structure, or in a communication chain, or when you are working to two different agendas. The nightmares commonly associated with being a middle manager are those around being caught in the in-between, and trying to keep everyone happy at all times. This usually results in you feeling everyone is unhappy all of the time. The trouble is the role of the middle manager is one that is frequently under-valued by those up the chain and those down it. It can feel like a thankless task, with many pitfalls and none of the freedoms of lower tiers, nor the perceived glamour and trappings of being in charge. It can be a lonely place being a middle manager at the staff Christmas party!
But so many of us are middle managers, and we need to value, celebrate and embrace this important role – not view it as a stepping stone, or less important or valuable than the top job. The truth is middle management is extremely important to any organisation. If middle management fails, it’s more likely the organisation is failing or will in the future. So middle managers are the secret to success and I think would benefit from greater value, and some creative and exciting reinvention. Here are some survival tips:
You need to listen to those above and those below you – everyone relies upon you to share and represent their thoughts, needs and wants on their behalf.
You are the conduit, or channel, of messaging up and down. You need to share information in ways adapted to different audiences, and be able to motivate action in the process.
You are key to change management. You need to know the processes for making change happen, and the emotional responses people have to it. Then match your actions to the stage people are at. Sounds simple, but it isn’t.
Be confident enough to ‘own’ your messages. Don’t blame colleagues or leadership when things get tricky. Creating false enemies will only come back and bite you later. Instead, try to support everyone to see things from their points of view.
Be confident in the middle, and make sure everyone appreciates that is where you are. If leadership starts to feel more like your allegiances are downward-focused, or colleagues think the opposite, it could be the recipe for many problems. Stick your flag in the middle ground; be consistent, clear, principled and loyal to all.
Once you have supported everyone to consider different viewpoints, use mediation and problem solving techniques to ensure everyone feels acknowledged, listened to, understood, and part of the future direction.
It might sound like a lot of hard work, but it’s an exciting and essential role when you think about it!