The Role of Middle Leaders/Managers in Schools
This post was inspired by this article on how organisations overlook the potential of their middle managers from the Big Think. Since my NPQML I felt that there was a severe undervaluing of middle managers in schools, You can read my naive reflection from the start of my leadership journey (from 2015) here. There can be a tendency to talk about more managerial roles as somehow lesser than being a “Leader”. This topic is well explained in this article from the Harvard Business Review.
In 1977, Abraham Zaleznik made a clear distinction between being a leader and being a manager. These ideas are still central to what is taught in many education leadership development programs, where there is a tendency to educate managers on how to “upgrade” and become leaders. Zaleznik argued that managers focus on building competence, control, and the appropriate balance of power, while leaders embrace chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure to understand issues more fully. I am not sure about the “Chaos” element but thinking about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools there is certainly a link between headteachers stepping up to a challenge. Whether they embraced it is questionable given the impact on recruitment and retention. Leaders are concerned with ideas and relate in more intuitive and empathetic ways, while managers relate to people according to the role they play in a sequence of events or a decision-making process.
This article forms part of our Special School Leadership Series.
Middle managers serve the most important role
- Middle managers are the beating heart of any successful school.
- Companies often misuse middle managers, assigning them tasks they shouldn’t be responsible for. from my early leadership roles I can relate to this.
Challenges faced by middle managers
- Middle managers often lack time, resources, appreciation, and agency to effectively manage talent.
- Senior leaders may reprioritise managers’ tasks for them.
- Many managers spend more time on individual contributor work than on managing people.
Survey results highlight the problem
- A survey showed that a significant number of middle managers feel their organisations didn’t set them up for success.
- Managers spend around 20% of their time on administrative work, hindered by organisational bureaucracy.
The importance of focusing on managers
- Management talent should be unleashed towards the management of talent.
- Well-performing middle managers are crucial in attracting and retaining the best people.
The challenges faced by middle managers
- Middle managers often have to protect their teams from misguided executives.
- Middle managers struggle to get buy-in for training and lack of trust from their superiors. This can be demotivating and link to lack of autonomy.
The changing nature of work
- Workplace communication has become more abundant, complex, and confusing.
- Unclear email trails, being CC’d in.
- Remote networking/meetings with external agencies require a new set of people skills.
Middle managers in schools are often overlooked
- Leaders often overlook middle managers’ potential to improve productivity and motivate staff.
- The reputations, reward systems, and job roles of middle managers need to be reevaluated.
Providing tools and training for middle managers
- Senior leaders need to give middle managers the tools, training, and autonomy necessary to effectively perform their jobs.
- Unnecessary or under-utilised middle managers are often a result of inadequate support from above.
The following roles and skills required highlight the importance of middle managers. When relating this to schools middle leaders are often the ones who keep companies together. The author identifies four key practices of successful middle managers:
- Janus: looking up and down the hierarchy and empathizing with both sides.
- Broker: negotiating between different levels of the School.
- Conduit: amplifying the voices of their direct reports.
- Tightrope walker: critically appraising and balancing dilemmas.
The article argues that middle managers are essential for the success of any school. They are the ones who bridge the gap between Senior Leaders, teachers and teaching assistants. They are also the ones who are responsible for implementing change and ensuring that everyone is following the strategic plan – well their elements of it. They are the ones who make things happen, and they deserve more recognition for their contributions.