The Squeezed Middle Manager

I’ve come across a group of people who, in my opinion, get a pretty raw deal in the start-up/scale-up world. A group I’m calling the Squeezed Middle Manager.

Who are this group and how did they get there? How did they become squeezed, how do we help them, and how do they help themselves?

Who are they?

The SMM can be categorised within startups / scale-ups as a group of managers that were once the 2nd in command to the people that now make up the SLT.   They were the right-hand person in business-critical situations and helped the business grow through informal influence and soundboarding.

How did they get there?

Now they sit much further down the decision-making ladder.   How did this happen?

Through a combination of:

  • Lack of adaptability
  • A lack of skills required to move the business forward
  • The hiring of more expertise into the business
  • The rearranging of staffing hierarchies this group.

This group, which once occupied the 2nd to top jobs in the business now find themselves relegated (in their eyes) down to the level of managers. No longer the movers and shakers, now the caretaker maintainers.

The fact is though, that they weren’t relegated, they were promoted and rewarded for sticking with the business through tumultuous changes.

From individuals who did a fantastic job, to the leaders of people.   The expectation is, that if they are good at the job and good at dealing with change, then they’d be good at teaching other people the job and helping them manage change.

How did they become squeezed?

This group became squeezed because they go from an individual contributor who knows the business and their job, into a management role that has to deal with the myriad problems that come when you manage a team, stakeholders, and the expectations of those above and below you.

Usually, this group now have to navigate not only how they would deal with change, but the emotions of those in their care.

They are expected to train people in how to do the job, but rarely has anyone shown them how to do this. They are expected to tow the company line with their team while trying to voice their team’s concerns to the powers that be. They are expected to hire, retain and grow people with little understanding of how this aligns with business goals.

And yet, they accepted the position, maybe naively, maybe out of self-interest, (money and the new title – which there’s nothing wrong with, if the cost of living goes up, then we’ll seek roles that support our financial needs), may be out of a genuine desire to help the business and their new teams grow.

Whatever their reasons they now find themselves in a position that can make or break* a business, but with little understanding of how to ‘make’ the business.

They find themselves without the knowledge, skills, behaviours and guidance from the business to succeed. They are buffeted by fast-paced change, the needs of their team and the need to upskill themselves.

All of this comes together to squeeze them into a place where they start to become at best unconsciously obtuse, at worst purposefully obstructive, and most sadly, burnt out.

*For the avoidance of doubt – I don’t believe that middle managers are, in huge numbers setting out to ‘break’ a business.

How do we help them?

There are a lot of actions that can help this group. As always the easiest to implement will have the lowest value in solving systemic issues and require a deeper understanding of a business than I can give in this piece.

Here are a few that I’ve seen to be effective in re-engaging this group as a good place to start.

From the senior leadership team:

  1. Align: Communicate with high frequency and high clarity how their roles are vital for the growth of the business, and what changes are coming.  Solicit feedback through this group. Get personal and hold town halls or focus groups rather than a survey. This could be with the CEO or each SLT member taking their department(s) through any changes. They can then choose if this is a journey they want to be part of. The bus is here, it’s their choice if they get on.
  2. Learn: Supporting people in their new roles through targeted learning that helps them develop the skills needed to hire, retain and grow the people in their team(s). Look at the funding and staffing you’ll need to help this group be the best they can be (whatever that looks like in your business).
  3. Do: Set clear expectations, and change job descriptions to ensure that the written JD matches the reality of the role. Give people-oriented goals, hold them accountable and reward them where appropriate. Show them how their work is integral to the success of the business.

If you’re a SMM what can you do:

  1. Get over it. You were once at the top and now you’re not. This is not the end of the world. You can choose to hold onto this grievance (I know I have in the past, and it never helped me or the business) or you can choose to look at the new role as a badge of honour; the business trusts you to help them grow.  This isn’t your whole life, it’s your life now and you can choose how you react to that.
  2. Leave. If you’re not happy no-ones making you stay. I’m not saying that you don’t give it you’re all, but maybe that business isn’t right for you. Maybe you’ve both grown too far apart and it would be better for both of you. With your talents and experience, you could find another job where you’d be happier and the business can find a person that wants to be in that role.
  3. Develop. You have an opportunity here to influence the people in your teams and the people further up the hierarchy. You have an opportunity to develop your knowledge, skills and behaviours that lend themselves to both the tactical and strategic. This is a great place to learn and you can learn a lot. Start researching the KSBs that you want to develop, get together with other managers and communicate what you need to excel in your role to your manager.

In my opinion, the SMM is one of the most difficult positions to hold in a scale-up / start-up and requires both the business and the SMM to communicate and design a way that they can find ways to help them be the best they can be.

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