Reinventing the Middle Manager

August 8, 2023

Do you ever find yourself reading an article that seems to have arrived in your inbox at the perfect time? For me, that happened last week. I read, How to Make a Pivot in the Latter Half of your Career, by Mario Lyons. The article was the last piece in a puzzle I had been trying to solve for 6 weeks.

Before writing about the article, I want to describe the puzzle I was solving. It started with a Zoom call I had with a friend. We talked because he was in transition. He had lost his job as a manager of an IT team. He had been a Director reporting to the CIO. Three teams reported to my friend. Each of his teams had a team leader, about 18 people in total. They executed IT strategy and tactics for a mid-sized firm. His insights into technology coupled with good business instincts and a knack for governance had helped him build a good career. Now he found himself in his early 50s on the outside.

I asked him what happened. How did he find himself in this situation? He was the last person I thought would find himself on the outside. His answer was one word, COVID. The disruption in the workplace from COVID had changed relationships with his teams, peers and leadership. When COVID went away, the rebound changed them again. These changes caused delivery issues.  The boss saw him miss dates on deliverables and he was gone within 6 months.

He described his boss’ COVID coping attitude as ‘just handle it and move on’. From his boss’ perspective, moving from remote to on-premise, quiet quitting, and fractured teams were just issues to be managed. When he asked for help, there was no authentic engagement by his boss. The boss gave the sense that senior leadership just wanted the issues to ‘go away’. Articles like this tell the current work place story: The Real Reason You’re Having a Hard Time Getting Things Done at the Office – WSJ. Senior leadership expected my friend to simply pronounce ‘things were back to normal’; reference The Backlash Against Quiet Quitting Is Getting Loud – WSJ. Instead, my friend said quiet quitting is evolving and he shared some stories that echoed this dreadful article, The ‘Lazy-Girl Job’ Is In Right Now. Here’s Why. – WSJ.

I came away from the call sad. I wanted to share better advice. I needed more pieces to build out this coaching puzzle.

Moving forward a few weeks. I then read the book, Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work (Harvard Business Review Press, July 2023). It almost completed the puzzle. I sent a copy of the book to my friend with the comment, “These writers get it. They have described the essence of what we’ve been doing (managing people) our whole careers. Think about how to use the author’s ideas in your next networking conversation.”

The book’s message, told using several great examples, was concise. ‘Middle managers play a crucial and often undervalued role in a firm’s success.” The key topics:

  1. The decades long trend to treat middle managers as bureaucrats, masters of administrivia, had biased senior leaders to devalue middle managers is over.
  2. Middle managers are the messengers for strategy implementation from the top and are a lens to help senior leaders see/understand the larger workforce. The middle manager is NOT the only messenger or lens, but good managers aid these essential processes.
  3. Managers are one of the keys to job satisfaction for most workers. There is a real reason why people quit, researchers report, ‘is most frequently because of their bosses’.
  4. People management, through authentic engagement, is art. Those who are good at it need to be supported and valued. In essence, firms can almost always find tacticians, but finding good people managers with domain knowledge is very difficult. The headline, keep the ones you have and develop new ones constantly.


Even with these ideas, I still felt my message to my friend needed more tangible, usable advice. The book got close, but it really spoke to the business leader. I needed a message to my friend, the job seeker. I needed practical advice. I needed the final piece of the puzzle. I wanted a ‘how message’; what do you tell a 52-year old middle manager to actually do when looking to find a new team?

The article mentioned at the top of this post was the missing puzzle piece. How to Make a Pivot in the Latter Half of your Career, shares practical advice:

  1. Highlight the kinds of experience that takes years of work to master. A good example is managing large scale change.
  2. Describe how those experiences create value. Remind hiring managers that change management executed by and with line managers is an essential part of adapting to competitive threats and executing transformations. Good change management consultants are not enough.
  3. Demonstrate how you have continually learned and stayed relevant technically. Have an informed view on how AI is changing work and how you can help in that change.
  4. Be artful about answering questions like, ‘Our firm is different than your previous firm. Your experiences are great, but you haven’t done <this and that>.’ Give an answer to that statement that uses your experiences inside their challenges.


Those specific ideas could be ‘the how’ that might shape my friend’s next networking conversation or interview. I sent the article along with some suggestions. For now, that’s all I can do. In our last conversation, he had said to me, “I just want to learn about new teams, share my story, and find out if I might be a good fit.” I don’t know if my friend will use these ideas, but I know they will inform his thinking and help him tell his story more effectively.

Of course, there is a management/hiring manager corollary to this story. My focus was on my friend, but if my friend had been a manager lamenting how hard it is to find and develop managers, I’d have shared the book and article to her with this advice:

  1. Help your managers engage with their teams better. Give managers the training they need.
  2. Give your managers more time to manage. Reduce the administrative burden on the managers. Design work that people love.
  3. Reward good people management.
  4. Give careful consideration to the mid-to-late career applicants who actually have served and survived as managers for years and are now looking for a new team. Their people skills are likely still intact. They just need a new setting. Listen to their story and try to imagine what good middle management can look like.


Finally, our team at Elevation Talent Group hears the stories of lots of excellent marketing and HR managers. Let us help you find your next middle manager. Reach out.

Likewise, if you are middle manager in marketing or HR looking to make a change. Talk with us.

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