"That's why you make the big bucks."
If you're a middle manager, I'm guessing you've heard that phrase more than once. You're assigned a particularly unpleasant task, say, and one of the people who reports to you, or someone to whom you report, will smirk and utter those words.
To an extent, it's a fair comment. Middle managers generally do make more money than those who report to them, and for that reason, they should expect to take on additional duties. Chances are, those duties won't always be fun.
Still, as someone who has spent years sailing these waters, I often think those who successfully navigate the treacherous shoals of middle management don't receive the accolades they deserve.
So today, I offer a bit of an ode to middle managers — those people who get heat from above and below and still keep an organization moving forward.
For starters, I don't think many people aspire to serve in this role.
I remember my own introduction to a managerial position. I was a reporter at a daily newspaper when one of the top editors approached me about filling an open section editor spot. My copy was fairly clean, and I'm an organized person, so I guess he figured I'd be as good a choice as any.
I hesitated to respond at first. After all, I went to journalism school because I dreamed of being a top-notch reporter and writer — you know, your basic Woodward or Bernstein — not because I wanted to edit other people's stories.
Then the editor mentioned that the job would come with a small pay raise. That's how they get you!
And so, without any specific education or training, I became a manager. That was about 15 years ago, and I've been a middle manager of one kind or another ever since, working with teams that had as few as two people and as many as 15.
For me, working as a manager has been an always educational, sometimes frustrating and often eye-opening experience.
Other middle managers can probably relate to this. One moment, you're plugging along, working on your own projects. The next, you have to worry about what a whole team of people is doing. You're expected to keep track of their progress and make sure your little cog in the company machinery is running smoothly.
But that's not the hardest part of middle management. Even if you're naturally good with people — which I am not — and have an exceptional team — which I have been fortunate enough to have — managing personnel is extremely challenging.
The middle manager must develop empathy for the people who report directly to him or her, not to mention a wide array of communication skills. If you want to succeed, you must want those who work for you to succeed, too. You need to learn about them and their lives outside of the office and to show patience as they work through their individual struggles. But, at the same time, you have to walk that fine line between "friend" and "boss."
You have to referee the conflicts that inevitably arise when a diverse group of people work closely with one another, bending over backwards to be both fair and just.
You have to make hiring and firing decisions. On the hiring side, you want to make sure you find exceptional people with all of the right skills who also fit well with the culture of the team and its members. On the firing side, you have to face people you have come to know, respect and appreciate — people who really have become friends — and tell them that they're not going to have a job with the company anymore.
You also need to make sure you have your team's back when they face criticism from upper management. This can be extremely difficult. On the one hand, you have to understand and support the company and its overall strategy and objectives. On the other hand, you've got to defend your team from unreasonable expectations and sometimes serve as a buffer between them and top managers.
Then there's the paperwork. I've been amazed at the amount of time these administrative duties require. You've got the annual budget to prepare and track. You've got annual — or sometimes more frequent — performance appraisals to complete for every employee.
Sometimes, you've also got to take care of scheduling. At my last job, this was my bane. I had a relatively small team, and we had to cover shifts that ran for 18 or 19 hours a day, seven days a week. Trying to fill that schedule while getting people two days off a week and making things fair was a bit of a nightmare.
This may sound like one big whine, but that's not my intent. As I mentioned earlier, middle managers do usually receive more money than rank-and-file employees. And I've found it to be quite rewarding when I've succeeded in overcoming one of the challenges of management.
What I really want to do is offer words of support and encouragement to my fellow middlemen and -women in cubicle-land. You may sometimes feel overworked and unappreciated — in fact, you may always feel that way — but I hope you can take comfort in the knowledge that many others are in your shoes and understand the challenges you face.
Hang in there. Keep learning new things. Maintain open lines of communication to both upper management and employees. And don't forget to make good use of your sense of humor.
After all, that's why you make the big bucks.