A common challenge that I see across the not for profit or for purpose sector is striking the right balance between doing the work, in other words ‘operations’ or ‘business as usual’, and improving the work i.e. business improvement.

It’s a challenge that is particularly acute for middle management, as they touch both operations on the ground and strategy at executive level.

The progression of people who are brilliant technicians into management roles is a regular pattern across the sector. They are usually an expert in their field and have a specialist skill set, for example client-facing work, a marketer, or an IT technician and, due to performance and experience, they step up and begin to manage a team.  This shift in role can happen quickly with minimal recognition of the new role requirements and lack of infrastructure to support the transition.

A new manager is given a team, they’re given autonomy, responsibility, decisions they have to make, budgets to manage.  Each one of these requirements has its own story and challenges and could be a blog post in itself, but the key issue that I notice for middle managers when they make this shift, is that they are no longer just tasked with doing the work. They are tasked with improving the work. This is an entirely new way of thinking and operating.

When stepping up to management, the role is no longer about business as usual and it’s no longer enough to be great in the field. A manager role is not just about overseeing the work of their team; delegating tasks, providing supervision, maintaining quality and putting out fires. The work of a manager is proactive rather than reactive.  Essentially, it’s business improvement.

What does this look like?

Driving the system. A manager’s role is to oversee their team’s system, that is the processes, functions and work flows that underpin the team, whilst looking for kinks, areas that aren’t working and designing better, more efficient ways of operating.

Developing people. This is about understanding individual team member’s strengths and building workflows and activities around this. It’s about understanding where they’re having challenges and providing on the job skill development and coaching. It’s also about bringing the right people into the team and having a proactive approach to performance management.

Strategy. A manager is an individual employee’s connection to the broader organisational mission and goals and they have a key role to play in strategy communication and implementation. They need to translate the strategic goals into team and individual priorities, provide a road map of team activity and hold people to account for success.

Risk management. Rather than putting out fires, a manager’s role is to watch for warning signs and, where possible, pre-empt the fires, intervening before they blow up. It’s about understanding risk; what’s tolerable and what’s not and setting boundaries so staff feel empowered and have the appropriate level of autonomy, but that safety, integrity, and adherence to regulatory frameworks are maintained.

Culture. Culture is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s particularly important for managers as they need to model the values and behaviours that are required for success. With their eye purposefully on culture, intersecting when there are warning signs and celebrating successes, they set the tone and environment for their team to flourish.

When I bring up this topic with managers I often see 2 camps;

  1. those that don’t see business improvement as the key function of their role or,
  2. those that do recognise the importance of business improvement, but they are stuck in the operations of the team. They are doing everything they can to keep the engine moving, but what they’re not doing is taking a step back and servicing the engine so it can work more effectively.

If managers are stuck in the day to day and don’t prioritise improving the work, we get what I like to call the ‘washing machine cycle’. The same patterns keep occurring and organisations are slow to progress.

As Executives and leaders we need to support managers to understand and navigate this shift and supply them with the right tools, resources, skill development and mentoring so they can step into this aspect of their role.  When this happens and managers get to this point, we see much more momentum and flow towards strategic goals, quality goes through the roof and teams feel engaged and motivated.

Enabling managers to pull out of doing the work and focus on improving the work is one element of my Accelerate Program, a targeted development program for middle management in not for profits. Please get in touch to find out more.

Laura Breslin

Laura Breslin is the founder and Director of Dandelion Consulting, a boutique consultancy which builds the capability of not for profit organisations. In this current climate of constant change, Not for Profits need to rethink their models, processes and systems and continuously evolve to be able to serve the people that need them. Laura has 14 years experience in the Not for Profit and Government sectors and has a deep understanding of the sector and the challenges facing organisations. Laura works in partnership with Not for Profits to develop strategic solutions to their complex challenges and to implement change which delivers lasting results.

Please get in touch to discuss how we can work together