Why middle management is the key to success

Leading your leaders is about more than just command and control, says Iain Thomson

You’ve probably heard the saying ‘people leave managers, not companies’. As it turns out, it’s true. A Gallup survey found a surprising 50 per cent of employees quit their jobs because of their manager. When it comes to employee engagement and happiness, managers can have a huge impact on how staff feel. 

Simply put, a good manager will make work more enjoyable. And with the UK’s productivity in need of a real boost, the relationship between managers and employees could make the world of difference. 

What makes manager material?

Far too often, managers are handed their roles based on their current skill set. The idea is that if they’re good at their job, they’ll be a good manager, right? Not so. The reality is that effective management needs a specific skill set that doesn’t always come naturally. 

So what makes a good manager? It goes without saying that they need to be good leaders. Being dynamic and able to show empathy will help motivate and inspire their workforce. But first and foremost, they need to be honest, open and build trust. Leaders are judged on their everyday decisions, how they treat their employees and how good they are at building relationships with their team. 

The world of work is busier than ever and we’re all guilty of rushing from one task to the next. But the importance of face-to-face time with staff can’t be ignored. Good managers will have an open-door policy for employees to share ideas, ask questions or talk through problems. A great manager can identify the key issues affecting their people and make sure something is done to put things right.

The old ‘command and control’ style of leadership just doesn’t cut it any more. Today’s millennial workforce cares much more about having a manager who can coach and build on their strengths, not just crack the whip. Employees who have frequent chats and feedback from their managers will be more engaged and productive. If they’re not clear on how they’re doing or what they’re working towards, they’ll start to think the grass is greener elsewhere. 

Managers might be expected to lead a team, but that doesn’t mean all the responsibility sits with them. It might sound ironic, but while senior management should make sure they’re hiring and promoting the right people for the job, they also need to support their managers. Sandwiched between the top brass and frontline staff, middle managers are the ones who are expected to get things done, but the buck stops with them if something isn’t working. So like all employees, they need training and emotional engagement. 

Giving managers feedback, help and advice on their career will make them feel supported and more likely to do better in their role. And feedback should be a two-way street – business leaders should also ask their managers what they think about their training. 

It’s also important to take the time to get to know what managers are doing day-to-day and put the onus on coaching over just checking in. Observe them, get to know who they are and show support – but don’t scrutinise. Having an honest and open relationship will help managers feel like they can ask for help if they need it.

But it isn’t all about feedback. People learn how to lead from their bosses, so it’s important the top-level lead by example. If they want managers to do something a certain way, they need to be doing it that way too. 

There’s no doubt that middle managers have a lot of plates to spin, but it’s as much about the art of people management as is it about completing tasks. People might join a company for the pay or growth opportunities, but they’ll be just as likely to leave if they don’t get on with their manager. 

Iain Thomson is director of incentive and recognition at Sodexo Engage