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5 reasons why focusing on the middle will get you to the top

Middle managers can help you stem the resignation tide if you focus on these strategies, according to Comcast Cable’s Steve White.

5 reasons why focusing on the middle will get you to the top
[Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

Today’s workplace has leaders looking for answers, and all roads lead to cultures in which employees feel like they belong. Of the employees who quit in the last six months, 36% didn’t have their next job lined up, signaling that attrition is not a compensation problem, it’s a connection problem. The C-suite has discovered that middle managers are the critical link between their vision and employee well-being. What’s more, managers in this buffer role provide moral support for remote employees who might otherwise feel disconnected. 

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One of the most valuable lessons I learned throughout my career was the importance of connecting with my team in ways that were meaningful to us and our collective purpose. Here are five ways leaders can coach their middle managers to create greater ties to the company.   

Align employee passion with company direction

It’s been said that “the two most important days in your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.” If you want your employees to feel loyal to your company, start by helping them uncover their purpose. Knowing your employees’ why can help you build on common ground. Ask your team members, “What is something you’re good at that you would do for free?” An employee’s purpose is often just below the surface and has always been there, but it’s important to slow down and help them find it. 

Challenge your managers to look for alignment between work priorities and the employee’s answers to the question. As you uncover shared goals, ask, “How does your career enhance your ability to live your why?” When you discover how an employee’s passion aligns with company direction, you can open up long-view conversations, discuss gaps for which you might be able to suggest training, or make introductions within the company to facilitate growth—all opportunities to create stronger ties with your staff and support longevity. 

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Commit early and often to new hires

Don’t let your courtship end when someone accepts the position. Keep “dating” them well into their first six months on the job. This is the time period during which 90% of employees decide if they’ll stay or leave. Enlist your managers to pair new hires with a series of seasoned and connected staff members—not to provide tours or go over what they can find in the employee handbook.

Instead, ask them to accelerate clarity about roles and provide elusive context so immediate collaboration is easier. New hires readily see opportunities to bridge gaps or problem solve with their peers when they get early-and-often input. Advisers also experience greater job satisfaction and company allegiance because the new hire’s success is their success. 

Use today’s evolving workplace as an excuse to break away from a historical focus on groups, such as white, straight, male, and able-bodied employees. Coach your managers to create an ongoing space for more groups to feel like they truly belong when they join the company. Create this space with feedback loops, such as regular pulse surveys to gauge your employees’ temperature on a topic, or conduct forums to address deeper concerns and opportunities. Develop a set of questions that you and your manager regularly ask yourselves to help you abide by what’s important to the new employees and the team. For example, “Do our behaviors reflect our values and our purpose?” 

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Recognize autonomy

I love it when employees ask questions like, “How do I stand out to my leaders?” or “What qualities are most important in a team member?” They’re showing signs of buy-in, and they’re signaling healthy autonomy. Both, in fact, mean that employees care about their performance and view themselves as an essential part of the team. If your employees don’t ask these questions, introduce them to the team. Encourage employees to think and act like a business and visualize being the CEO of their own careers. 

The mission of any good business revolves around creating value. Enlist team members to consider this: “What can I do or provide that my company will want badly enough to pay me for doing it?” Thinking in these terms prompts employees to raise their game and ask the next natural question: “What investments do I need to make in myself to increase the value of what I offer?” Investments might range from focusing on a new work habit to taking an online course. Talk with your team members about skills and experiences they’re looking for so that, together, you can increase their value and invest in a connected future. 

Be the chief repeater

We complete what we repeat. I’ve put this idea to the test throughout my career. The power of repetition can’t be overstated in the workplace with all the disruptions we experience today. Repeat your higher purpose to create a more cohesive staff and a better connection between employees and the desired outcome. Be the caretaker of your team’s objectives and goals by emphasizing your collective why, and start meetings with your vision. Look for ways during the normal course of conversation with your team to restate your purpose. 

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Ask your managers to continue testing with verbal messages until you get them right, and then move on to the written form. Highlight your shared purpose on working documents, agendas, and slide decks, and create guiding principles your staff members can post in their offices. Calling out key messages for your team becomes your verbal and visual armor against distractions that are unrelated to your collective why. Consider creating a brief strategy statement if you don’t have one already. These are often more memorable because they mention objective, scope, and competitive advantage in a single sentence. 

Offer play-by-play commentary 

There aren’t many leadership behaviors that cause a greater disconnect than overlooking a hardworking employee. Managers have the proximity and immediacy to make an impact. In fact, 9 out of 10 employees will repeat a specific action if they receive recognition for it. The secret to great recognition is not if, but when and how. 

In the spirit of play-by-play sports commentators, offer recognition in the moment that celebrates what you want to experience again. Share unexpected comments outside of performance reviews because they feel more authentic to team members. Be specific. Describing what you appreciate versus making general remarks like “Great job!” helps employees repeat and improve. Even though general remarks still are appreciated, specificity has a longer shelf life and impacts future behavior. Spontaneous comments also help the employee feel your sincerity as opposed to formal input that may feel as if it’s counteracting something unsaid.   

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Leaders who give their diverse and dispersed workforce a greater connection to their shared purpose will have a better chance of withstanding today’s trends and rising to the top. Middle managers can help you stem the resignation tide if you focus on shared purpose, expedite context, enlist buy-in, and reinforce great performance with repetition and play-by-play recognition. 


Steve White is president, special counsel to the CEO of Comcast Cable and the former president of Comcast West Division. 


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