Letters to a Young Middle Manager
By Christin Rice, Senior Consultant
In the early 1900s, iconic poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed a collection of ten letters to a young gentleman who had sought Rilke out for feedback on his poetry. The collection, Letters to a Young Poet, provides an intimate view into a beloved poet-master’s mind, not on HOW to write poetry, but rather how to be in the world as a poet—how to understand the depth and meaning of that role, as well as the beauty.
It’s time to create a similar collection for middle managers.
If you’ve ever seen a Dilbert cartoon or the Office Space movie, you know the term “middle manager” has a lot of baggage associated with it. This type of disparagement is unfortunate, because the role of the middle manager in an organization is one of the most critical for the long-term success of that organization. If organizational strategy is set at the top, and the bottom is where that is supposed to transform into action, it’s the middle that holds all the strength or weakness in translating that strategy in a way that inspires, clarifies, and motivates those who will execute it.
Without a strong middle, organizations will fail. And yet, organizations often do not spend budget or energy on developing it. There seems to be an assumption that a leader who achieves that position already has what they need to succeed, when in fact that is most often just wishful thinking. According to The New Reality of Mid-Level Leadership1, only 10% of middle managers feel well-prepared to face the challenges at hand.
I’ve recently had the privilege of talking with a number of leaders across a wide variety of industries who have been successful middle managers for a significant time. One question I asked each was “What advice would you give to someone new to the role of a leader of leaders?” Applicable for all levels of leadership, their answers are a roadmap particularly useful in accelerating the learning curve in the critical transition into a leader of leaders. Here is a selection of what they would share, in the spirit of Rilke:
Dear New Middle Manager,
You are about to enter new territory. Your new job is a very different job from what you did previously—even more different than you may have expected. Don’t underestimate that difference and assume you can rely on what got you here. Because, unfortunately, what got you here will not make you successful in this role. This might be one of the hardest lessons. You’ve worked hard to get here. You already have many tools in your toolkit. But now you’re going to need a bigger toolbox.
Check your ego at the door and understand your motives. If it’s just a move of self-interest, you’re going to encounter a hard road ahead. Get a mentor if you don’t have one. And if you’ve got a good one, hold on tight. That mentor doesn’t necessarily need to be an internal resource. Network outside your organization with leaders at the same level in order to learn from each other and your experiences.
Keep an eye on the big picture: strategy is your goal now more than ever. That means moving from being project and task-oriented to being visionary. This is more easily said than done. You must find a way that not only supports a balance of long-term strategy and short-term needs, but that also suits you and your style. That may require an app or an assistant to manage your calendar. That may include devoting specific times to one or the other and strictly adhering to those hours. It may also mean transforming your morning commuting time or delegating some tasks to free up time. Use all the good skills you’ve built over the years on time management and gain even more. They are more critical than ever.
One time-saver is embracing the truth that you don’t have to have all the answers all the time. One of Rilke’s famous lines is particularly appropriate here—“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” Living the questions at this level in an organization can mean letting others become part of the answer, regardless of where they land on the organizational chart.
Being an effective leader is not just about deploying strengths. It is also about knowing your allowable weaknesses, and inviting others to help make sure these weaknesses don’t become a barrier. You do not need to be the resident expert on everything if you have perfectly capable people on your team to fill in the gaps. And you don’t have to be the only one involved in strategy—allow your leaders to be part of informing the vision as well. In addition to building trust and developing your leaders, you can also gain significant buy-in and ownership.
But it’s not just about how you lead your leaders or business unit. Managing up effectively is even more critical in this position. Here’s the key: influence up for the benefit of the organization and those you lead—not for yourself. If the journey is just about ladder-climbing, it’s going to be a very long climb.
Finally, have fun with it and challenge yourself. This could be your biggest opportunity for growth and impact yet. And last but not least (Rilke would have particularly appreciated this one): read a book. There are good, practical ones out there such as “The First Ninety Days” by Michael D. Watkins and “Grit” by Angela Duckworth. Find one that resonates and add it to your leadership library.
Rilke always signed his letters by wishing the reader his best: “And all success upon your path!”
Rilke’s words still reverberate for poets and writers in training, more than a hundred years later. He cut to the core of what it means to be in the world as a poet, and the discipline and very hard work that entails. What advice would you give to someone new to the role of managing from the middle? Even those not in leadership roles have an important point of view on how leaders can lead more successfully.