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Key Takeaways

  • Humor is essential for personal self-reflection and for improving team dynamics. It helps individuals cope with challenges by maintaining a lighter perspective and fosters a bonded, enjoyable work environment, which can transform tough situations and facilitate more constructive interactions.
  • Middle managers are crucial for organizational success but are frequently neglected in development programs. Enhancing their leadership and soft skills can significantly improve their effectiveness and the organization's overall performance.
  • Middle managers play a pivotal role by inspiring frontline staff, facilitating cross-departmental collaboration, and influencing strategic decisions with ground-level insights. These capabilities make them indispensable in bridging operational and strategic functions within a company.
  • Confident middle managers are characterized by their capacity to prioritize tasks, their capability to continuously learn and adapt, and their conviction to assert themselves effectively. These attributes enable them to navigate organizational complexities successfully.
  • Middle managers must adapt communication styles to suit senior leaders’ preferences. Understanding whether leaders prefer detailed analysis or big-picture overviews and adjusting communication accordingly can significantly enhance the impact of their interactions.
  • Middle managers can strengthen their influence and improve organizational outcomes by sharing strategies and supporting one another. Effective feedback mechanisms and collaborative problem-solving can inspire and empower the individuals and the entire team.

Executive Summary:

Hey everyone, thanks for joining us on a brand new episode of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Our guest today is Sally Foley-Lewis, a leadership development expert from Australia. Sally has over 20 years of experience in various managerial and executive roles and is an award-winning speaker and coach. 

She specializes in helping middle managers enhance their leadership skills to boost productivity and confidence. Additionally, Sally has worked with over 15,000 managers across the globe, including in Germany, the Middle East, Asia, North America, and Australia.

So, without any further ado, let’s delve into the insights she shares in this episode.

Sally Discusses Humour’s Role In Self-Reflection And Enhancing Team Dynamics

Aram initiates the discussion by questioning Sally on the significance of humor in her work and its impact on her clients, hinting at its potential professional importance.

The latter responds by highlighting that humor is crucial for internal self-reflection and external group dynamics. Laughing at oneself helps in handling daily challenges and maintaining a lighter perspective, which can transform tough situations into manageable ones. 

Moreover, humor enhances group cohesion, creating a more enjoyable and bonded work environment. According to Sally, this shared levity can significantly improve team interactions and workplace culture. She also highlights that humor can effectively break down barriers and ease tensions in high-stress situations, such as serious meetings, making it easier to progress into more constructive discussions.

Sally’s Journey To Enhancing Middle Management Development

Next, Nolan asks Sally to share what experiences and factors in her career led her to focus on developing high-performing middle managers in her current work.

Sally highlights that her passion for working with middle managers stems from her comprehensive experience in various roles related to management, including being a middle manager herself and overseeing them as a CEO. She identifies middle managers as a typically overlooked and underserved group in professional development, often falling into the “too hard basket” within organizational structures. 

Sally is driven by the desire to help this group because they are often eager to improve, whether they aim to excel in their current roles or advance to higher positions. She emphasizes the importance of developing soft skills and leadership capabilities in middle managers, contrasting this with the more technical focus of frontline training programs. 

How Investing In Middle Managers Boosts Organizational Growth

Aram wants to know what Sally would say to convince senior leadership in an organization about the importance and methods of investing in their mid-level talent.

Sally mentions that she would explain to senior leaders that investing in middle managers is crucial due to their unique organizational position. She describes it as the “trilogy of success”: inspire, collaborate, and influence. Middle managers are pivotal because they:

#1 Inspire 

Senior leaders are closer to the frontline staff, which allows them to inspire and motivate this group more effectively and directly than other levels of management.

#2 Collaborate 

As a conduit between frontline operations and strategic planning, middle managers are ideally situated to facilitate cross-departmental collaboration. Their proximity to day-to-day operations enables them to quickly gather insights, identify efficiencies, and seize opportunities, enhancing agility within the organization.

#3 Influence 

Middle managers can influence upward by providing senior leadership with valuable, ground-level insights that inform strategic decisions. This role helps ensure high-level strategies are based on actual operational data rather than assumptions.

Sally emphasizes that middle managers’ ability to perform these three roles effectively makes them indispensable for an organization’s success and underscores the importance of investing in their development.

The Three Cs Of Confident Middle Management: Capacity, Capability, And Conviction

Moving on, Sally discusses the key habits and practices of confident middle managers in navigating organizational complexities. She outlines three main attributes:

#1 Capacity 

Confident middle managers excel in prioritizing tasks effectively, reducing stress, and leveraging their team’s skills to ensure that tasks are completed efficiently and appropriately.

#2 Capability 

These managers are lifelong learners, continuously improving their own skills and leadership styles. They focus on enhancing communication, becoming better listeners, effectively delegating, and conducting performance conversations constructively to avoid negative outcomes like accusations of bullying.

#3 Conviction 

Confident managers know when to assert themselves and make their voices heard. They possess a sense of personal power and the ability to influence decisions, and they push forward in their initiatives until explicitly told to stop.

Sally shares a personal story to illustrate the challenges of managing up. She describes a situation where she failed to effectively communicate her workload struggles to her director during their meetings, which typically revolved around the director’s challenges. 

Despite preparing to speak up, Sally was overwhelmed and unable to break the pattern until she finally lost her composure in a meeting. After expressing her frustration inappropriately, she took responsibility for her actions and approached her director to apologize and discuss reprioritizing her tasks. 

This incident highlights the importance of managing emotions and timing in communication to effectively influence an organization.

Sally On Adapting Communication Styles For Effective Leadership

Sally also mentions the importance of understanding and adapting to senior leaders’ communication styles to effectively manage and influence upward. She emphasizes that middle managers need to take the time to learn whether their senior leaders prefer big-picture thinking or detailed analysis, fast-paced or slow-paced interactions, and formal or simple language. This understanding allows middle managers to tailor their communications in a way that is most likely to resonate and be effective.

Sally shares an example of how middle managers can successfully influence senior leaders. She describes a scenario where a middle manager needed to provide feedback to a senior leader with whom they had a challenging relationship. 

By involving their colleagues in a group session, they could role-play and fine-tune their approach, focusing on emotional honesty and providing specific examples to substantiate their points. It helped the middle manager deliver the feedback effectively, leading to a positive outcome and inspiring others within the group to adopt similar strategies.

Thus, it showcases the direct impact of effective upward communication and highlights the broader benefits of collaboration among middle managers. By sharing strategies and supporting one another, middle managers can enhance their influence within the organization, benefiting their personal growth and overall performance. 

Sally encapsulates this dynamic with the “trilogy of success” (inspiring down, collaborating across, influencing up), suggesting that mastering these three aspects can exponentially increase a middle manager’s effectiveness.

Thank you for your time!

Transcript

Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. I'm your co-host, co-founder Nolan Martin. With me as always, Aram Donigian. Aram, how are you doing today, sir?

Aram Donigian : Well, I'm great because we get our second interview with someone from the land down under. And for those who are tuning in, that means someone has to be a little inconvenient. But our guest today was kind enough to find a time that was only semi inconvenient for her and really not too bad for us. The family's going to hold dinner, so not too bad.

Folks, today we have Sally Foley-Lewis joining us, Sally helps middle managers move and improve. She boosts self-leadership and leadership by helping people reach their potential. Sally positively impacts effectiveness, confidence, and results. With a leadership development career spanning more than 20 years, she has held roles from operational to CEO, and she's seen middle management from every angle she walks the talk.

Sally is a global award-winning professional speaker, facilitator, and executive coach. The drive to support and skill managers comes from her own senior leadership experiences. Sally delivers presentations, keynote speeches, workshops and coaching to help skill managers boost productivity and self-leadership.

Sally has worked with more than 15,000 managers and leaders from medium-sized to global organizations in Germany, the Middle East Asia, North America, and across Australia. Her extensive qualifications, wicked sense of humor and ability to both engage and inspire, help her make clients feel at ease in the work they do with her.

Sally, thanks so much for joining us.

Sally Foley-Lewis : She sounds awesome. I can't wait to meet her.

AD : I know. So I got to ask because wicked is a term we use up here in New England where I'm from, and your bio references a wicked sense of humor and we expect that to be on full display today as we chat.

SFL : No pressure.

AD : Let's just start with a question, why is humor so important to the work you do and potentially even for your clients?

Leveraging Laughter For Leadership And Connection [02:49]

SFL : Oh, I love that. I think humor is essential because let's start from the inside and work our way out. If you can't laugh at yourself, then we're going to have a very long, painful day. I think one of the things that as leaders as just humans in this world, if we can't find the funny in something, then we're not going to be able to lean in as easily and we're not going to be able to move through things as easily as well.

Now, there are times when there's a little bit of too soon for that joke. There are those moments, but I would hope that as human beings, that if we can find the levity and find the funny in something, then we are going to be more connected to it and we're going to give gift ourselves, not just give ourselves, but gift ourselves a different perspective and gift ourselves away or a strategy to handle and cope with some of the tougher things that come across our table.

And then that's the inner work doing laughing at yourself. But if you can bring humor to a group, then wouldn't it be a nicer environment that you can all have a laugh together? You can collectively look at a situation and enjoy the humorous side of it where it's appropriate. And that's a bonding thing.

You know, when you walk out of a theater, when maybe you've seen a comedian or you've been to a show or something and you just watch the energy of the collective walk out that theater. People are smiling and they're smiling at strangers. And so I think it's absolutely essential to have a bit of humor.

AD : I would agree. I would agree. And even wouldn't you say Nolan, even in the military, a sense of humor was an essential thing.

NM : Yep, for sure.

SFL : Yeah. And also I think especially when we go into certain situations with a preconceived notion that it needs to be serious. And I've been in a situation where I was brought into a sales meeting and everyone was all serious, and you can see it was all about posturing and all about power and who had the authority. And of course I've walked in going, Hey, because I had nothing vested and nothing to lose. Nothing to gain was where my head was at.

And so we're talking away and I am a reactionary person, I'm an extrovert, and I actually sat there when they complained about a certain thing happening in certain programs. I said, that's all right. We won't do that again. And everything tickled because it was easy. We're not doing that again. And it was a little levity and I think that broke the ice and made it easier to move into the next phases of those discussions, so yeah.

NM : Well, Sally, reflecting on your career journey and experiences, what is it that led you to your current work and specifically the focus you place on developing high performing middle managers?

Elevating Middle Managers In Leadership Development [05:42]

SFL : Oh, thank you. Yeah, I can start way back when I was a child, but we won't have that much time. I've always been thrown into leadership positions even as a child. But also the reason why I really love working with middle managers is because I've seen that position from every vantage point, whether I was reporting to middle manager, being a middle manager or having as a CEO to oversee and guide and direct and lead a middle manager or two.

And so when I sat back and removed myself from being an employee at any particular level and thought about how I want to help people, I would go through all these different phases of different training programs and delivering different workshops to different groups of people. But I always came back to it's middle managers. Middle managers are the forgotten cohort, then the neglected cohort. And I don't think it's done deliberately.

I just think they fall into the too hard basket. And another reason why I love working with middle managers is because they either want to stay where they are, just do it better and have it a little bit easier, not a lot easier. They don't want it to be too easy, but they want it a little bit easier or they're ready and they want to move up. And so there's so much scope and so much desire for improvement in that band that it's very welcoming. I think a lot of programs that are delivered for frontline are fantastic, but they get a little bit into more technical kind of things versus when we are at that middle band, we're actually looking at self-leadership and leadership and a little bit of tech, but it's more the soft skills. It's more that real professional and personal development bleeding into leadership compared to any other role.

And I'm going to be a little bit cheeky and a little bit provocative and just say, I don't want to work with the C-suite. I love you, but you can do your other stuff. And that's a bit cheeky, but the reason why I prefer middle managers to the C-suite is because I think that I can see if I can work with middle managers now and set them up ready for being exceptional leaders when they get to the C-suite, then I've done my bid, I've done my bid to help the C-suite. So that's probably the most diplomatic way of saying it.

AD : Well, I love it. We are going to dig in really into your work and focus on the middle managers in a lot of depth. Before we do that though, I wanted to ask you, if you were sitting down with someone in the C-suite, senior leadership of an organization and you were convincing them about why and how they should be investing more in their mid-level talent, what is it that you would tell them?

The Trilogy Of Success: Inspire, Collaborate, Influence [08:27]

SFL : Cut straight to the chase? I would say because your middle managers have got the opportunity to be the trilogy of success, and that's what I call, I've got this little phrase called the trilogy of success, and that is because they're in the middle, they get to inspire the front frontline faster than any other cohort in the organization.

They're more visible and therefore there's more tangible connection that the mid-level managers get to inspire the frontline. And then at the mid-level also because they are in between and they're the conduit between the frontline and the strategy between operations and strategy, they are also perfectly positioned to collaborate across because they know what's going on or they're closer to finding out and faster at finding out what's going on at the frontline. They're in a really good position to be able to quickly, this is where Agile comes in, to quickly collaborate across and look at efficiencies, look at opportunities, and take those opportunities faster than it would've had to just go all the way up the top and back again.

And so that's where I think the collaboration is that second part of that trilogy of success. And then the third part is they are in the position to influence. So we've got Inspire Down, Collaborate Across and Influence Up, and they get to influence up because they know what's going on. They get to take that information at the frontline, analyze it, and then be able to feed that up so that the strategic direction of an organization is actually well-informed, not well guessed.

NM : I love that. So as you described this unique place where mid-level managers are able to influence, align in a variety of all those different directions, how do you help them navigate the complexity? What do you see as key habits and practices of confident middle level managers?

The Crucial Role Of Middle Managers In Organizational Dynamics And Personal Growth [10:26]

SFL : Yeah, there's a lot in there. So sit down folks, put your seatbelt on. It depends on what's going on. And it depends on the organization, the culture of the organization. I think when we've got confident middle managers, so I'm going to actually reverse engineer your question. So when we've got confident middle managers, what we see them having is the capacity to look at the work that needs to be done and be able to prioritize work in a way that allows 'em to get more done with less stress, allows 'em to know who they've got and how to leverage those skills so that the right work is being done at the right time for the right price and for the right outcome. And so that's the capacity piece. And then there's also their capability. And so a confident middle manager is someone who I think is a lifelong learner.

And what they're doing is constantly looking at ways in which they can improve their own capabilities, whether it's looking at their own leadership style, whether it's understanding how to communicate more effectively, being a better listener, knowing how to truly delegate and doing the inner work that allows them to let go and trust so that they do actually delegate and don't tip into micromanagement.

Being able to have those critical conversations and performance conversations in a way that leads to better productivity, better performance rather than an accusation of bullying. It's all those elements around their own capability and vulnerability with that, knowing that they're not going to be great at everything. So how do they build in the capability of the team as well to help them where there are gaps? And then the third element, because everything looks good when it's in threes, the magic threes, a confident middle manager also has conviction.

So I say capacity, capability, and conviction. And conviction is all about knowing when to speak up and take a seat at the table knowing that they have got, understanding their own personal power and understanding that they have actually got the ability to influence. And I remember someone saying many years ago, and I love this phrase, it's not mine. I wish it was proceed until apprehended.

And I loved that because it means I trust you and I know you're not out to do harm. I know that you're trying to do good work, so until someone stops, you keep on going. And I think a lot of the C-suite actually would love their mid-level managers to know that. But there's a few things that get caught up along the way. And so to me, when we talk about having a really confident middle manager, we've got someone who's got capacity, capability and conviction.

AD : Oh yeah, and I'm going to steal this, proceed until apprehended. That's a far better expression than seek forgiveness rather than permission. I like this one a lot better. Absolutely. Sticking on this conviction for a moment, influence and upward can be so difficult and we know it's critical. Could you share examples, two part question, an example, whether it's yourself or generic person, A time when someone didn't or was unable to manage up effectively. And the cost, and I don't know if that's individually or organizationally, that's part one.

Part two would be in a time when someone did, they followed your advice and with conviction influenced up very well in the benefits that came from doing so.

SFL : Yeah, I'm happy to share my own situation of not speaking up and influencing up. When I was in a senior position and I had a director of a department, plus I had a chairman of a board and they were a male, so chairman and I also had a government minister, so I had three bosses as such. And I was in a situation where the director would constantly come and just say, could you do this? Could you do this? Could you do this? Could you do this?

And piling on and piling on and piling on. And then with our weekly fortnightly catch ups, I would get myself ready to say, here's the list. Tell me what I can drop because you are just piling on. And I'd get myself, now, I'm going to speak up this time, I'm going to go in there and I'm going to back myself.

And I write all the lists down and I get myself mentally prepared to go into the meeting and we go into the meeting and it's almost therapy for her. I sit there and listen and listen and listen about how hard she's got to, how much work she's got to do, what's going on. And we're about 45 minutes into an hour catch up. And she says, now I just want to go through where are you up to with this? Where are you up to with that? Where's X, Y, Z? And I'm sitting here thinking, rabbit put in the headlights. Where do I come into this? And so even though I knew instinctively at some level I had to say something, I had to pattern break what was going on. Talking over a year of this happening over and over and me trying to justify and trying to ask for, and unfortunately, and this is books, this is not what to do.

I lost it. I absolutely lost it. I just walked into the next meeting and I said, I've had a gut full of the way these meetings are run. You are just piling on. Listen to me, you don't tell me or help me prioritize or reprioritize. I spend 45 minutes listening to how hard you've got it. When do I get to have a chance to talk to you about how hard I've got it? I just went to 10, I was 12. I was just throwing a tantrum and I was not proud of that.

However, I think sometimes [inaudible] these horrible moments to teach us things. And I'm glad that I've got enough inside my brain to go, alright, we won't be doing that again. And so I actually went back to my director a day later and I actually said to her, I apologize for the way it came out, but I'm not sorry that we had the conversation.

And she looked at me and I said, I was disgusting. My behavior was not acceptable, and I own that and I apologize for that. However, I need you to help me so that I can do the work you want me to do, and I need your help to reprioritize and understand what is the most important thing to work on. Because from this side of the desk, my perception is just a constant piling on. And I know that's probably not how you see it, but that's how I'm experiencing it. And so that was an awkward conversation, but a better conversation.

Our relationship took quite a bit to come back to being okay again. But we both decided to lean in and keep working at it, and it got better. It got not perfect, not back to where she thought we were great. And I knew that it had a little bit of when you dent something like a can at the supermarket, you look at the dented can and you think, do I want to buy that one? So I had a little, but yeah, so that's me not speaking up, me not finding the right way, the right time, the right tone, the regulation of the emotion prior to opening the mouth when it came to influencing up and the next day was better, but it wasn't great either, but at least it was an acknowledgement of my own behavior and a moving forward.

AD : That’s right. Yeah, and I was going to say, I mean the second day was better. I mean, I still want to hear of a time when maybe you followed your own advice or someone else did and the benefits that kinda came from that. But I was wondering even taking ownership and you took ownership for what was appropriate to, and even that piece, I could really use your help to dah dah dah.

And I was wondering, is that kind of combined, the acknowledgement, the ownership, the invitation to assist, is that part of the way that middle managers can step up with conviction to really manage and influence upward?

The Key To Effective Communication And Influence For Middle Managers [18:49]

SFL : I think so because a lot of the work I do with middle managers is that they haven't taken the time to understand their senior leaders. They haven't taken the time to actually sit there and say, is my senior leader a big picture thinker? Or do they get granular? Are they fast paced or slow paced? Do they use really formal and complex language, or are they really quite simple and easygoing, really sit there and try to understand their leader, which then means the way in which they seek the help and the advice of that leader can be crafted in a way that lands and gets them that help.

And I was the same back then. I went into that conversation going, help me. It's all about me when I should have taken a moment and really thought, okay, what's going on in her world? How does she like to communicate?

What does she really like? And brought that front of mind because it's easy to think you know someone, but if you don't actually sit down and analyze it and really, really look at it, then you walk in communicating how you like to communicate rather than communicating how they like to communicate. And we're often told to be reader focused when we are writing, well, why don't we be receiver focused when we're talking and listening?

NM : I like that.

SFL : And so the one about someone who's done something when it's worked, right? So I was doing some coaching with a group of middle managers and one of them reached out to me saying, I've got a bit of an awkward situation where I need to give feedback to a senior leader doing an executive program, and we don't get on and I don't know how to craft it.

I don't even know where to start. And I do feel as though there's going to be repercussions if I say exactly what I'd like to say, and so I could sugarcoat it and dull it down and really weaken the feedback, but then things won't improve if I do that. And so they were really struggling with how to influence up and how to really give that feedback in a way that it would land. And so I actually encouraged that person to come back to the group and as a group, let's, I don't like role plays.

Role plays are cringey, but for want of a better phrase, we role played or we scenario it. How about that? We scenario it. And so I said, put it on the table because your colleagues know who this leader is. This is a safe space. Let's practice some of the language you might use.

Let's have someone who knows this leader maybe give you a bit of reply how they might reply and let's work this out. And so we spent about an hour and a half on this actually. It was really, really cool because their colleagues, because they knew who that person was, were really invested in being able to help this person really craft up the way they needed to influence up.

And they pulled out an emotional kind of phrasing and language, so how I feel, how I perceive you, and really owning that, and it's how I perceive you, how I feel when this happens. And then also really concrete examples from a few projects and a few meetings and a few things, but they were really specific. So that what that did was it was you are always, when we walk in and say, oh, you are always doing this.

Well, that's not right and that's not accurate. Whereas this leader could walk into that conversation going, I own this. And it's backed up by these really concrete examples. So it's not all the time, but here and here is when it happened. Interestingly, they were ready, they went and they actually gave the feedback and it actually went really well. But what surprised all the group was a couple of weeks later, two others who were in the actual group came back and said, we applied the same process and it's worked really well. And so even though they were there supporting and helping and giving, it had that ripple effect of empowering others as well.

And this is where being able to influence up is really critical. But when that trilogy of success, when we are collaborating with our across, if we see our other mid-level managers in the organization as our team members, as our teammates, and having those conversations, those safe supportive conversations around, look, I've got this situation and I need to tell the boss, what would you do? How do you think I could do this? Could you help me work this out? How much more empowered would we be as a mid-level manager?

And interestingly, I saw research on this ages ago that frontline staff really benefit when mid-level managers really collaborate across, because it actually helps take the pressure off the frontline and the mid-level managers actually have a cohort to help them to influence and manage up. So everyone wins. Everyone wins.

AD : So, as you answer that just now, the question that came to mind was around this trilogy of success, and I know we've really just focused on the upward, the aspect of that so far, and one get into the other two, but are they inextricably linked? I would imagine it's possible to do one well and not the others, but is it like an exponential gain when you get all three right.

SFL : Oh, absolutely. And I think you can sense that it could be, and yes, we can do one or two better than another. So the challenge of that, right, even though I'm touting how good it is, the challenge of it, and this is why I think middle managers have got it more interestingly than most in an organization, is that they've got to be able to, okay, I don't like the word pivot. Thank you, COVID. But you do have to pivot, right?

You have to be able to pivot from being inspirational downwards to influencing upwards really quickly, so much so that your head spins. So that's the challenge for the middle managers is that they've got to be able to understand that their communication is inspiration, collaboration, or influence. And it has to be, you're swapping in and out of it really quickly sometimes. You are walking out of one meeting where you are the most junior person in the room being asked to influence up being asked questions and being put on the spot and being able to give the data and your expert opinion on what's going on.

And then five minutes later, you come out of that meeting and you've got to handle a performance conversation with a team member that reports to you. Snap! So it's possible that, yeah, you don't do one or some of them well, but I think if you are wanting to be a really confident middle manager, that's something that you would work on to be able to do all three well, and also being able to have the resilience and the speed or agility to swap quickly as well.

NM : Hey everyone, Nolan here. I have to jump in and end today's podcast for part A of the show. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the NEGOTIATEx podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.

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