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Middle School and Middle Management Sound a Lot Alike

By John Golding

John Golding

Middle school…these two words probably bring some clear and definitive memories to mind, right? For some of us, we may remember a time when we felt awkward, scared, excited, hopeful, and self-conscious and probably a myriad of other feelings stuffed into our 13-year-old brains. Indeed, middle school represented our first chance to gain some independence, take on more responsibilities, and develop the habits we would need for success in high school and beyond.

It wasn’t until I was helping my 13-year-old son with his math homework (shiver!) that the thunder struck and I had a small epiphany: Being a first-time mid-level leader is a lot like starting middle school!

Middle School and Middle ManagementWhen I first became a mid-level leader, I had many of the feelings and experiences my son was having. I was excited about meeting new people, working with my first team, having new and important responsibilities, confused about math and wanting to make my mark, as it were. And I was nervous (maybe a little scared too) about whether I would measure up and get a seat at the cool kids table (i.e., would my peers like and respect me?).

During my transition to a mid-level leader, I was fortunate to have a leader who cared about me and who worked hard with me to ensure my success. He imparted some important lessons that stuck with me. I found that these lessons can help my son (as much as any 13-year-old can or will listen) and might be valuable for those of you working through your transition into a mid-level leader.

Show your work and think before you act

Granted, this is not always easy for any 13-year-old but hopefully by the time we’ve reached this point in our careers, we’ve learned this important lesson. Taking more time to really think through the problem or challenge and writing it down before reacting helped me avoid making snap judgments and poor decisions (ok, I’ve made a few).

Remember your 7th grade algebra teacher asking you to show your work (ugh!)? Why did they ask us to do this? Well, even if you got the wrong answer (often for me), at least you showed your thinking and now had a chance to see what went wrong and how you might get the right answer next time. You will make mistakes as a new mid-level leader but I found the best leaders I’ve worked for were interested in understanding my thinking and how I arrived at the answer…even if it was the wrong one. This gave them the help they needed to be a better coach to me. Give your boss the same opportunity.

Be willing to put yourself out there to make some friends (and allies)

Remember walking into the lunch room the first day of middle school? Somewhat terrifying, right? Maybe you saw some familiar faces so you sat there because let’s face it, it’s not always easy to stretch ourselves to meet new people, people who don’t look or act like we do. However, if we always play it safe, we miss opportunities to experience new things and new ways to see the world.

In my work with new mid-level leaders, I often emphasize the ability to be strategic about who you reach out to because it is so important. In our research, one of the most critical skills new mid-level leaders need to master is strategic networking. In today’s complex organizations, where matrixed management, global scale and uncertainties make it virtually impossible to know all that you need to know, you can’t go it alone. So, while being a lone wolf in middle school might make you cool and mysterious, in the world of work today, the “cool kids” are building relationships that enable great partnerships needed to execute key strategies.

Take time to take good notes and have a plan

Every new school year, my kids get school calendars and notebooks where they are expected to keep track of their assignments, announcements, etc. By the third or fourth week of school, the notes aren’t quite as clear, if they are there at all. It’s easy to see that my son often gets overwhelmed by the amount of work he is accountable for; then resorts to late Sunday evenings to catch up.

When you are transitioning to your new role as a mid-level leader, if you don’t feel somewhat overwhelmed, I’d be surprised. To tame complexity, I’ve found that it helps to write things down and think of the problems/challenges in smaller, bite-sized chunks as well as to track my commitments to others. It’s a common sense idea but in our overscheduled lives, it often falls by the wayside. We move from one meeting to another (or one problem to another) but are we really achieving the things we need and want to achieve? One of my mentor leaders in my career had mastered this skill. He made time for it every day…it became a disciplined habit.

Take time to think about what you need and want to accomplish, write it down, and make a plan to achieve it.

Do your best to meet your commitments

With my son, I’ve continually tried to reinforce this point. If you make a commitment to your teacher, like turning in an assignment that she gave you another chance on, do it! The reality of middle school and middle management is that responsibilities grow greater. In one case, you might get a “do over” if you are late with an assignment but it’s been my experience in the working world, “do overs” are rare. Even if you get them, it impacts others perceptions of your trustworthiness to accomplish things you commit to.

Maybe for the first time in your leadership journey, you are making significant commitments to your boss, peers, and direct reports as you’ve taken on this new leadership role. Honoring commitments lets others know that you are reliable and can be counted on. Be thoughtful about committing (or overcommitting) and honor the commitments you make.

Don’t take a zero on an assignment

Is there anything more aggravating than talking to your middle schooler about grades and finding out they just opted not to turn in their assignments? “It’s no big deal, Dad. It’s only one assignment.”

Here’s where I try logic. “How hard is it to change a zero to a passing grade? To make a zero into a D or C requires two or more “A level” assignments. Wouldn’t it be easier to improve your grade even if you receive 50 percent versus a zero?”

The work parallel here is that it’s better to do something, to meet a commitment, than it is to turn in nothing. In our roles as mid-level leaders, we’re expected to deliver results. Remember, something can be continuously improved, nothing cannot.

Pay attention to how others see you

Watching my middle schooler get ready for school each day is always an experience. “Think you might want to run a brush through your hair? Brush your teeth? How about putting on some deodorant?” These questions are always hanging in the early morning air. Usually middle school represents the first time we care about our appearance and of course, we have others judging us all through the school day. However, external appearance isn’t the only way people see and make judgments about us. How we act and behave towards others becomes our “rep” or reputation in middle school.  As you transition to your new leadership role, you need to be aware of your “rep,” too.

When you took on this new role, the light shining on you instantly became brighter. Habits and behaviors you demonstrated, both good and bad, in a less visible role may not have been seen as often. However, you are now leading other leaders and interacting with others whose influence across the organization is much greater. In this brighter light, it’s important how you conduct yourself and bring to bear your strengths, while being careful to manage behaviors or actions that won’t be as readily accepted at this level. This is often called your leadership “brand” or “footprint.” Be conscious of the brand you are building through your behaviors and actions…others are watching.

Remember that not everyone will like you

This lesson hits home after a few weeks in 7th grade. You form your social groups (ok, cliques) and find some people you have things in common with. If you want to see this firsthand, go to lunch at school with your middle-schooler. Over here are the jocks, over there are the geeks, and right over there are the popular kids.

When I first became a mid-level leader, I wanted everyone to like me and I wanted to like everyone. It didn’t take long for me to learn that this wouldn’t be the case. What I found is that among some of my peers, I made some very long-lasting, trusting relationships and to this day retain the people as not just work colleagues on LinkedIn but friends as well. With other leaders, we worked together, often in times of great stress and challenge and even though we may not have “liked” each other, we respected each other in the end.

The key message here is be your genuine self and don’t try to be something you’re not. People you lead will see right through you if you try to fake it. Live by the principles and values you want expressed as part of your leadership footprint.

Transitioning to a new mid-level leader role brings both great excitement and challenge. Just like the first day of middle school, you’ll feel all the excitement of new possibilities coupled with the fear of failure and dread of uncertainty. Embrace the challenge and be the leader you were born to be, make your mark and leave a legacy of greatness because, guess what, high school is just around the corner!

What are you doing to prepare yourself or other new mid-level leaders? Learn more about DDI’s Accelerating Leadership Transitions to help new middle managers make the leap.

John Golding is DDI's Senior Consultant, Accelerated Development Solutions.

Posted: 29 Jan, 2016,
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