Middle Managers: The Meat in the Sandwich

Posted 08.24.2009

Sandwich1 A lot of the clients I work with in our group coaching program are middle managers. They’ve moved beyond the level of front line leaders and supervisors, but have not yet reached the ranks of the most senior executives. They’re the directors, senior directors and vice presidents in the private sector and the GS-15’s and SES – 1’s in federal government. And, based on my experience in working with them over the years, I would say that more and more they are the meat in the sandwich. By that, I mean they’re constantly squeezed from pressure above them and below them in the organization.

Over the weekend, one of my colleagues from the Georgetown Leadership Coaching program, Marijo Puleo, shared a McKinsey survey report, Leaders in the Crisis, on the alumni list serve. In that same daily digest from the list serve there was an extended conversation sparked by another colleague who has a client in crisis. Like a lot of people these days, this client simply has too much work to get it all done and still have a semblance of a life. About ten coaches responded to that issue and said they’re seeing the same thing with their clients.

How much more evidence do we need that middle managers are the meat in the sandwich? The McKinsey survey had some interesting results that illustrate the point. Here are a few factoids for you.  Middle managers, compared to the top execs surveyed, are:

  • Less committed to staying with their organizations
  • Less enthusiastic about their work
  • Less satisfied with their own performance and
  • Far less satisfied than the seniors with how their bosses are doing. (Ouch!)

Does anyone else see a problem here? These are not just the people responsible for keeping things running during the current economic challenges, these are also the leaders that organizations are counting on for long term growth and success. The stakes around keeping this group engaged are pretty high. Here are a few ideas based on the McKinsey research about how to do a better job with that.

Don’t Just Focus on the Numbers:  80% of the executives surveyed by McKinsey said that their organizations have taken steps to reduce costs and half talked about decreasing capital investment.  The executives who feel best about their performance, however, said they were taking extra time to motivate their people.

Talk About What They Care About:  So, how are the top leaders motivating the troops? Over 70% of them are talking about company values and financial performance. Nothing wrong with that, but back to the sandwich analogy, it’s not a complete meal. Only 31% of the leaders surveyed said they’re motivating through creating opportunities for career growth and 27% said they spend time showing interest in employees’ lives outside of work. (What, you mean they have lives outside of work?)

Encourage Down Time (and If They Don’t Encourage It, Take It Anyway):  The McKinsey research indicates that 65% of executives who aren’t at all satisfied with their own performance are spending less time on social, religious or athletic activities they enjoy. In contrast, 64% of those who are very satisfied with their performance are taking time for the non-work renewal of their energy and perspective. Here’s a tip. If you’ve got a boss who’s in the 65% group, you’re going to have to set some boundaries for yourself to take the time you need to renew and show up at your best. It’s rare when a leader who’s running flat out until they crash is going to have enough presence of mind to encourage others to take some down time. Don’t wait to be asked. Take it.

A lot of the findings in the McKinsey survey remind me of one of the things that I think is most true about leadership skills. They fall into two big categories. The first is the skills that drive results. The second is the skills that build relationships. Great leaders have rich skill sets in both categories. Leaders under pressure (as are a lot of the leaders surveyed in this study) tend to over focus on the skills that drive results. The irony is that the conditions that cause the pressure make strong relationships that much more important.

What’s your ratio between driving results and building relationships? What are you doing or what do your leaders need to be doing to practice effective leadership in this prolonged crisis? What have you done lately to take some pressure off the meat in the sandwich?