What can our future leaders do to survive and thrive during the next 12 months? Follow these four steps.
PUBLISHED Dec 3, 2020
Middle managers are feeling the pinch of the new pandemic working arrangements, posing significant risks for the Australian business community who rely on these critical managers to run their organisations now and into the future.
This was a key insight from more than 50 senior business leaders from across Australia and supported by our work with clients across many industries. The board members and senior business leaders – all executive mentors and coaches for McCarthy Mentoring – agreed that while women and young people are also bearing the brunt of the pandemic, middle management is feeling particularly stressed about an ever-increasing list of priorities and challenges. This potentially poses major implications for business, given that middle managers are our future business leaders.
We know middle managers as the team leaders in hospitals, supermarkets, finance, insurance, and energy companies, the translators of strategy to execution for their direct reports, relied on for their subject-matter expertise and ability to keep their teams effective and motivated. It’s these managers who are constantly reviewing, reorganising and redeploying teams in response to top-down pressure and changing organisational and customer needs.
Once described as the “messy middle”, called on constantly to switch between the role of follower to leader, and to make dozens of decisions daily, the role of the middle manager has long been recognised as stressful and exhausting, but COVID-19 has made their plight much worse. As Harvard Business Review put it: “you’ve had to take a pay-cut, lay off employees, and deliver bad news up and down the organisational chart”.
So, what can the ‘messy middle’, our future leaders, do to survive and thrive during the pandemic? Follow these four steps to successfully navigate the next 12 months. This approach builds resilience and enables you to take control during so much uncertainty.
Self-awareness makes you more effective and stronger as a leader, sharpening your focus on what you do well and what tools or support you need for areas of weakness.
Ask yourself what strengths and skills you can draw on to achieve your goals and deliver outcomes. It might be grit, empathy or a capacity to get stuff done. If you’re not sure what your key strengths are, ask someone you trust – they’re usually pretty accurate.
The benefit here is that if, for example, you know empathy is one of your skills, you should recognise the value in your ability to be perceptive to your team’s needs and stresses, and guide them to perform at their best.
If you recognise empathy is not your strength, you can move to put strategies in place to achieve a similar outcome. That could be by asking questions that will help build trust and understanding on how they are coping or what’s impacting performance: ‘What might be getting in the way for you at the moment?’ or ‘How can I best support you?’.
But in order to manage and support others, you also need to check your own health.
How are you looking after yourself? You need to remember to recharge your own battery. You might do that by running, singing, reading or sitting quietly. Make the time to do this, block it out in your diary today and three times this week. It’s not a luxury, it’s smart management of your health and wellbeing, and no-one else can do that for you.
You might not be the CEO but you can start thinking like one.
Connect with your team
Whether you’re working remotely or in the office, staying connected to your team is critical to ensuring they are engaged, motivated and across the many changes that are impacting workplaces.
Rather than just relying on team meetings, more frequent one-on-one calls or coffee check-ins with each team member are effective ways to ensure they each feel personally supported, clear on current priorities and on the same track to achieve goals. Even if it takes up much of your day, communication with your team has never been more critical.
When people feel heard and valued, research shows they are more engaged, more productive and generally happier.
The next important conversation managers and their teams need to have is about what the ideal workplace looks like.
How much flexibility do people want and what will be the impact on your business, team culture and productivity?
Where possible, ensure your knowledge management systems remain transparent and easily accessible to enable teams to continue working together seamlessly from different locations.
Indeed, the large-scale move to remote working has demanded more precise and accurate inputting of data while the casual corridor chat or verbal agreement has not been possible.
Prioritise your customers
This is not a new concept, but its importance has been amplified and technology has enabled alternative ways to work and respond to customer needs. For example, we have seen telehealth regulations quickly overhauled and medical practitioners upskilled, to enable great innovation in providing medical care and advice directly to people in their homes.
How can you stay relevant and responsive to your clients and customers in the next 12 months? In your role, you have greater visibility on the day-to-day operations, process and frontline insights on customer needs.
Disruption and change always create opportunities, so this could be a time to present your ideas for growth.
The middle manager can be the connection between customer service and product design teams or other functions within the business. Stay laser-focused on what your teams say customers are looking for and how best to deliver it, rather than on what you already have to sell.
Ask yourself the question ‘will this improve the customer experience?’ every time you make a decision, about almost anything.
Is it greater data insights, more immediate or short-term services, more effective communication, changed forms of delivery, or a more premium service? We will continue to see personalised and efficient customer experiences.
Think strategically about your organisation
You might not be the CEO but you can start thinking like one.
When you reflect on the past six months, has your business model shifted? What’s working well, and what isn’t working? What do you need to change to stay ahead of the curve?
The simple SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) model can be used to effectively consider how you create value, where you see the gaps, what feedback to capitalise on and what’s ahead for your industry and sector.
Disruption and change always create opportunities, so this could be a time to present your ideas for growth. Being in the middle gives you a unique perspective on the organisation, its customers and its future.
Now might be the time to step up and share your ideas on how to survive and thrive in 2021.
Sophie McCarthy, CEO, McCarthy Mentoring