The importance of negotiation in mid-level leadership
Far from the laughed-about middle manager of last decade, those that can lead from the middle – the B-Suite – are fast becoming invaluable. They turn strategy into reality and act as an essential translator between the C-Suite and the workforce.
Imagine managing through the return-to-office debate without the support of the B-Suite – senior enough to have authority, junior 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 we ever have, and we will continue to do so for as long as business remains ambiguous, fast-paced and disrupted.
Top to Bottom
Middle Managers are both a leader and a follower, the giver and receiver of instruction, and you are required to sense-make, organise and execute despite never having all the information, rarely working in a perfect operating model, or having clear boundaries.
Your loyalties are constantly tested. You’re trying to keep your senior leaders happy from a political perspective, and your team happy from an engagement perspective. Focusing too much on senior management needs can lead to unhappy employees who can see you as untrustworthy or even a traitor (especially if you were promoted from the ranks). Equally if you’re too focused on engagement and wellbeing, senior managers can see you as not committed enough or even resistant to their needs.
- Stay neutral. Your needs are a combination of their needs, so if you favour one party, you may lose the favour of the other. This will materially undermine your ability to get things done.
- Balance desirable with viable. Keep your eye on the bigger picture but have a firm grasp on what can realistically be done.
Middle Managers often get called manipulative, caught playing sides between executive and workforce. B-Suite Leaders exhibit neutral objectivity that enables a win/win outcome.
Side to side
We know there is no such thing as a perfect structure or a flawless operating model. That means middle managers are negotiating the grey areas with their peers all the time.
A lack of clarity around scope of influence, operating boundaries and decision-making rights are a breeding ground for assumptions and strewn with broken relationships. Executives are happy to let you know what work needs to get done, but they leave the how up to you – and that often requires negotiating ways of working with peers who frequently have an agenda that conflicts with yours.
- Don’t escalate up, that’s like going to mum when you’re arguing with your sister. Treat every interaction as an empowered adult.
- Find shared accountability or common ground to establish the space that matters to both of you and that you will both support.
- Watch out for accidental gaps and overlaps in your structures, accountability and assumptions – overlaps create turf-wars and gaps create failures.
- Be prepared to compromise – if you’re not compromising, then you’re not really negotiating, you are demanding.
Middle Managers are often embroiled in ‘them and us’ turf wars with other middle managers. B-Suite Leaders have forged adult partnerships with fluid boundaries based on trust.
Our bosses expect us to negotiate – and we negotiate with them all the time even if it’s something small like time off. Negotiating with your boss is a process of trade-offs: they don’t expect you to be able to accommodate every request they make.
- Don’t say yes to everything. Saying yes all the time suggests that you either have way too much capacity in your team (cue reallocation of resources), or that other deliverables will suffer as a result.
- Use the Iron Triangle or Triple Constraint model instead. Beloved by Project Managers everywhere, this an easily memorable model to flex your negotiation skills. What-ever new demand you get, offer your boss a choice of good, fast or cheap – but they can only have two. The third is the negotiation point – to accommodate this request, something must slow down, someone must accept less or someone must pay more.
Middle Managers say ‘yes’ to everything, and their wellbeing, retention or performance often suffers as a result. B-Suite Leaders say ‘yes, but’ – then they negotiate trade offs.
Lastly, the hardest one of the lot. Negotiating with yourself. Have you ever had a values conflict? Been asked to execute an action you firmly disagree with or to not share information that will materially affect your team? Of course you have, and it’s really tough.
- It’s still a trade-off – between your needs and the needs of your executive versus your team. Your needs in the middle are often about making yourself feel better – but ask yourself if it actually adds value.
- If that’s not the answer, then you might be experiencing a clash of values. These are hard – and sometimes impossible – to reconcile and may lead you to you parting ways. Because some things are not up for negotiation and it’s important that you know what they are for you.
One of the things that marks out a B-Suite Leader from the rest of middle managers is their ability to negotiate – continously, elegantly and effectively. It’s a crucial skill for building B-Suite Leaders with C-Suite impact.
Written by Rebecca Houghton.
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