Far from the ridiculed middle managers of the last decade, those who can lead from the middle – the B-suite – quickly become invaluable. They turn strategy into reality and act as an indispensable translator between the C-Suite and the workforce.
Imagine tackling the return to office debate without the support of the B-suite – high enough to have authority, younger enough to have a personal touch. It’s a role that neither a frontline leader nor a C-suite leader can play. We need the B-suite more than ever, and we will continue to do so as long as the business remains ambiguous, fast-paced and disrupted.
Middle managers are both a leader and a follower, the giver and the receiver of instructions, and you need to make sense, organize, and execute even though you never have all the information, seldom work within a perfect operating model, or have clear boundaries.
Your loyalty is constantly tested. You’re trying to keep your senior executives happy from a political perspective and to keep your team happy from an engagement perspective. If you focus too much on the needs of upper management it can lead to dissatisfied employees who you may consider untrustworthy or even traitors (especially if you have been promoted from the ranks). Even if you focus too much on engagement and wellbeing, leaders may find you not engaged enough or even resistant to their needs.
- Stay neutral. Your needs are a combination of your needs. So if you favor one party, you can lose the favor of the other. This will seriously undermine your ability to get things done.
- Balance desirable with practicable. Keep the big picture in mind, but have a firm grasp of what can realistically be done.
Middle managers are often labeled as manipulative and caught playing between the executive and the workforce. B-Suite Leaders show neutral objectivity that enables a win / win result.
side by side
We know that there is no such thing as a perfect structure or a flawless operating model. This means that middle management is constantly negotiating with its colleagues about the gray areas.
Ambiguity about influence, company limits and decision-making rights is a breeding ground for assumptions and littered with broken relationships. Managers are happy to tell you what tasks need to be done, but leave the how to you – and that often requires negotiations with colleagues whose agenda is often at odds with yours.
- Don’t escalate, it’s like going to mom’s house with your sister. Treat every interaction like an empowered adult.
- Find shared responsibility or common ground to create the space that is important to both of you and that you both will support.
- Watch out for accidental gaps and overlaps in your structures, responsibilities and assumptions – overlaps lead to turf wars and gaps lead to failure.
- Be willing to compromise – if you don’t compromise, then you are not really negotiating, but demanding.
Middle managers are often embroiled in “them and us” territorial battles with other middle managers. B-Suite leaders have forged trust-based partnerships for adults with fluid boundaries.
Our bosses expect us to negotiate – and we negotiate with them all the time, even when it’s like taking a break. Negotiating with your boss is a compromise process: he doesn’t expect you to be able to grant every wish.
- Don’t say yes to everything. Saying yes all along suggests that you either have way too much capacity on your team (indicating resource reallocation) or that other results are suffering.
- Use the Iron Triangle or Triple Constraint model instead. Loved by project managers everywhere, this is an easy-to-remember model to improve your negotiation skills. With every new demand you offer your boss the choice between good, fast or cheap – but he can only have two. The third is the negotiation point – to comply with this request, you have to slow down a little, someone has to accept less, or someone has to pay more.
Middle managers say “yes” to everything, and their wellbeing, attachment, or performance often suffer as a result. B-Suite Leaders say “Yes, but” – then they negotiate compromises.
Last but not least, the hardest of all. Negotiate with yourself. Have you ever had a conflict of values? Have you been asked to take an action that you absolutely disagree with or not to disclose information that will materially affect your team? Of course you have, and it’s really tough.
- It’s still a compromise – between your needs and the needs of your manager towards your team. Your mid-range needs are often about feeling better – but wonder if it actually adds value.
- If that’s not the answer, you may be experiencing a conflict of values. These are difficult – and sometimes impossible – to negotiate and can cause your paths to part. Because some things are out of negotiation and it is important that you know what they mean for you.
One of the things that sets a B-suite leader apart from the rest of middle management is their ability to negotiate – consistently, elegantly, and effectively. It is a critical skill in building B-Suite Leaders with C-Suite Impact.
Written by Rebecca Houghton.
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