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How to lead from the middle

Nick Martindale

A group of men forging forwards and speaking their minds

You don’t have to be a leader to display leadership, says Nick Martindale – you just need to know how to gain the support of colleagues and create a commanding presence

What do you think of when you see the word ‘leader’? In the past, most people would envision a powerful person at the top, issuing orders to the masses in the lower ranks.

But this image and traditional workplace models in general are under threat.

Social media and the increasing trend towards flexible and remote working are now empowering individuals within organisations to take on more initiatives under their own steam, forming their own networks that challenge conventional team boundaries.

That means leadership can now come from anywhere within the company structure.

Your senior leaders will often not be interested in the detail of a scenario; they just want a summary and a suggested way forward. In contrast your team members will, or at least should, be a lot more detail-oriented.

“The way organisations used to run was that you’d have a boss and a solid line into the people who work for him or her,” says Harry Dunlevy, director of HR consultancy Independent. “Now people are expected to move across organisations and work laterally on many things at once.”

Individuals wanting to progress within these modern structures need to be comfortable not only leading a team of direct reports but also managing people from other disciplines.

They must possess the ability to influence those above them in the organisational hierarchy on issues that may lie outside their traditional remit.

“People succeed on the quality of their ideas, so anyone can emerge as a natural leader,” says Vlatka Hlupic, professor of business and management at Westminster Business School. “When we talk about leading from the middle it comes down to taking responsibility, making decisions on the basis of knowledge, sharing ideas and speaking up.”

While there are clear organisational benefits to having strong leadership skills within middle management, it is often the responsibility of individuals to create opportunities for themselves.

Recent research by Ashridge Business School on the learning experiences of middle managers in the UK found that 80% have had to drive their own career development.

Darren Cassidy, vice president of offer and business development at Xerox Managed Print Services, actively promotes a culture in which managers are encouraged to look beyond their traditional remit.

He attributes his rise up the corporate ladder to his own efforts in this area. “It became clear to me that I couldn’t get the outcomes I required by focusing only on the people that worked for me directly,” he says. “The key was being able to very clearly articulate which areas I needed to focus on and then to explain to senior managers what I was trying to achieve and the outcomes I was going to get.”

Most individuals have the opportunity to extend their remit into new areas but often feel limited by their “circle of control”, suggests Frances Storr, who is a partner at the organisational development consultants Sheppard Moscow.

“It’s a question of understanding what your span of authority and influence is, and operating right up to the edges of it,” she says. “The thing that sometimes worries people is the idea of stepping beyond their span of authority, yet most have clear water between their normal sphere of operation and potential limits.”

Central to taking on and managing projects successfully is the ability to establish trust with other members of the business, many of whom may hold an ostensibly higher-ranking post.

“Self-awareness regarding the impact on others and of their view of self-orientation – whether you are seen as being motivated by the good of the organisation or merely by self-advancement – will be critical to successfully establishing a leadership profile,” says Chris Rogers, managing consultant at training specialists ASK Europe.

“A trusted, credible and optimistic individual can inspire and encourage others without holding a senior position.”

Playing fair

There are also certain personal skills – which can be derived from natural characteristics or coaching – that are essential.

Catherine Adam, lead consultant at management advisers The Chemistry Group, highlights project management, the ability to build effective relationships and confidence as vital attributes, but is also keen to stress the need to treat all colleagues in the same manner.

“If someone sees you talking down to a junior or up to a senior, you will lose respect,” she says.

“The strongest leaders are those who respect the achievement of the project more than their position in the business. It then doesn’t matter if you’re leading from the middle.”

To have people lead from the middle means a company doesn’t stagnate and the organisation moves in the direction the senior leaders want

However, a more modulated approach is advised by Sharon Glancy, director of The People 1st Training Company. She says managers need to vary their communication strategy depending on exactly who they are dealing with.

“Your senior leaders will often not be interested in the detail of a scenario; they just want a summary and a suggested way forward. In contrast your team members will, or at least should, be a lot more detail-oriented.

"As manager of a team, you need to be a good listener and be able to give them clear direction. When relaying information to senior leaders you must be clear and concise, prioritising the information that is important to them."

Martin Fairn, chief executive of the training company Gazing Performance Systems, values the ability to deal with ambiguous situations in a practical manner. “Middle managers need decision-making, strategic and motivation skills, along with a whole set of day-to-day, practical, thinking-on-your-feet abilities,” he says.

Central to this is an understanding of company politics, something Kieran Colville, head of leadership for EMEA at recruitment consultants Kenexa, describes as the unwritten rules of the organisation.

“These are not skills that can be easily acquired,” he says. “From our research into leadership and gender, some of these political skills are more readily acquired by men due to their archetypal preferences and motivations. Women typically need to focus more on developing these skills if they are to have the required impact to lead from the middle.”

Such skills are also paramount when it comes to managing difficult projects, particularly when buy-in is required from different parts of the organisation.

The ability to listen and empathise is vital, says Jack Downton, managing director of coaching company The Influence Business.

“In times of change and during difficult projects, people have concerns, so the person who is aware and listens can find themselves in a position to influence,” he says.

Picking your moment

One skill required to effectively take on such projects and challenges is knowing when it is appropriate to do so.

Adam stresses that the day job should always take priority, while Rogers points out that attempting to lead without permission is a shortcut to conflict and disruption. “However well-intentioned or gifted the individual, their actions may be read as either self-centred or deliberately challenging,” he warns.

Indeed, any attempts to influence upwards or lead from the middle are likely to fail if the company culture and senior management are hostile to such initiatives.

This is common in organisations where there is a high degree of structure and hierarchy, points out Will Mitchell, director of consulting at talent management specialists a&dc.

“However, some highly democratic organisations, such as consultancies, media firms or start-up operations, encourage contributions from all employees, whatever their status,” he says, adding that these tend to be found more in the private than the public sector.

Whichever way you look at it, taking the lead can have hugely beneficial consequences for both individual managers and the organisation as a whole.

“To have people lead from the middle means a company doesn’t stagnate and the organisation moves in the direction the senior leaders want,” says Fairn. “Only from this point can you go on to create a high-performing leadership environment.”

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