4.5 min read

Just as water is the lifeline of ecosystems, middle managers are the lifeline of organizations. As the conduit between staff and senior leadership, you’re positioned to turn organizational priorities into concrete workstreams, connect strategy and culture, and lead your team to great results. And, let’s be real—being a middle manager isn’t easy! You see the pressures senior leaders navigate and the challenges staff face—sometimes feeling squeezed between both—with limited power or influence to make changes.

The good news is that you can ease the squeeze by expanding your sphere of control. Here are three (water-inspired!) strategic mindsets to start with:

1. Be a bright spot.

From rainforest rivers to coral reefs to salt marshes, bodies of water are ecological bright spots of abundant plant and animal life on Earth.

If someone held a magnifying glass to your team, what would they be excited about? That’s a bright spot! Like an oasis in the desert, middle managers can be organizational bright spots that influence people, teams, results, and culture.

Imagine your team as a microcosm of the whole—how can you model equitable, sustainable, and results-driven management? This could look like:

  • Adopting a new project management software to improve coordination and role clarity on your team (and pitching it to leadership as an org-wide tool if it works!)
  • Defaulting to 50-minute (instead of hour-long) team meetings, so folks have buffer time between meetings 
  • Adding pronouns to nametags and email signatures
  • Offering new feedback opportunities to your direct reports

Then, consider sharing new lessons with your manager and peers. Let’s say you’re a development director—you could share:

“Hey friends, I want to share a small win! I was working on updating my team’s division of labor and after my first draft, I realized I was still holding too many areas of work. I connected with my development manager and we just decided that they’ll own our grassroots fundraising campaigns next year, something I’ve traditionally owned, but that they have a ton of experience with! Now, I can focus on prospecting and building relationships with institutional donors. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted, and I have someone in the role who can take it farther than I would. Cheers to shifting the weight and empowering our teams!”

2. Be adaptable. 

Water is incredibly adaptable—it flows to fit into tiny crevices and carves new landscapes like canyons and valleys.

Let’s say senior leadership makes a decision you didn’t expect or laws in your state change. When times are uncertain, remind yourself: “I’m not the ultimate decider of our organizational vision or direction, but I am the expert of my team. I’m best positioned to help us adapt to this new context.” 

You have the power and duty to guide your team through transitions—with equity, sustainability, and results in mind. This includes reprioritizing goals, refining systems, and jumping on new opportunities.

For example, imagine you’re the communications director at a 20-year-old immigrants’ rights organization. Historically, your team has focused on newsletters and direct email campaigns. After undergoing a strategic planning process, senior leadership identified that a social and digital media strategy is critical for engaging younger audiences. To adapt to this priority shift, you set different goals, revisit your team division of labor and competencies, and adjust your systems to accommodate this new area of work. You set a new goal for social media engagement rates and work with your communications manager to shift their role to focus on digital marketing.

Note: Adaptability sometimes just means reducing the work. For more on that, check out tip #2 in Managing Through Uncertainty: Strategies for Middle Managers.

3. Be the bridge.

Water is nature’s bridge, facilitating the transport of oxygen via the bloodstream, and connecting habitats so fish can migrate with the seasons.

Middle managers are a vital link between staff and senior leaders. Focus on relationship-building and propose solutions that consider everyone’s perspective.

Bridge staff to senior leadership

Senior leaders need information from staff to inform their decision-making and strategy. Invite staff to share feedback with you regularly, uplift their perspective, and propose solutions that are within your or your team’s sphere of control.

Here’s an example of what that might look like:

“When we set our annual goals, we focused on including more family members in discussions about district priorities. We’re a few months into the school year, and some of my staff have observed that many of the family members we’ve engaged are white. I share their concerns. Based on their feedback and recommendations, I propose that we shift our strategy to better meet the needs of BIPOC students—by focusing on families who are part of X neighborhood, on free/reduced lunch, or speak a language other than English at home. What do you think?”

Bridge senior leadership to staff

When communicating leadership decisions to staff, share the rationale and, if applicable, include how staff perspectives informed those decisions. Then, invite feedback (especially concerns!) and share potential mitigations. Give regular updates so that staff feel in the loop—and practice with your manager ahead of time if needed. Remember that your goal is to be a conduit by sharing information and seeking their perspective—not to resolve every concern. You might say to staff:

“As we’re planning next year’s budget, we’re making strategic changes to sustain our core programming and prevent budget shortfalls down the line. While we will continue our leadership development program, we’re considering some cost-saving changes. Before we make any final decisions, we’ll gather your input through an anonymous survey by XX date and discuss in check-ins.”

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