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Being a Middle Manager - Best or Worst of Both Worlds

I was delayed at the airport in Dallas and came across a book called "Serve Up, Coach Down." I was initially very excited to see this book because I really appreciated the distinction that in your career you have to continually manage up and down and these are distinct and often require different competencies.

As an executive coach, I am often hired by an organization to help a leader improve communication, engage their team, develop leadership best practices, and achieve greater results more quickly. What I have also noticed in my coaching practice is that I see a lot of leaders come to me for coaching on their own terms. And when they come in on their own, without the funding or knowledge of their company, they have a different goal in mind. They are looking to get ahead. Sometimes they want a new career or job, but most often they want their company to recognize and reward them for being a great leader. And it is less common for this set of leaders to ask me to help them engage their team more effectively. They either do that well already or it's a blindspot but they don't hire someone (out of their own pocket!) to help them. They hire someone to help them manage up. So, when I saw this book, I was excited to get some answers! I am not sure I got the answers I was hoping for.

Coach down

Get's it Right: Coaching is my area of expertise and for the most part I think the author did a great job of getting this right. He encouraged managers to stop protecting their teams and start expecting more. Really pushing and mentoring and supporting. I liked this because in our scarcity minded job market, managers fear that if they push their employees they might leave. This book argues the opposite. I believe it benefits both employer and employee to invest and coach professionals to exceed expectations. And in Silicon Valley there is usually a leader at the top with a big personality and all the managers below this leader spend all their time shielding their teams from this bigness. The author suggest managers stop doing this. Don't protect your staff. Engage them.

Enough with the sports metaphors: It's ironic to join a profession that also has coaches who coach sports and then have to sit through a book describing how business is like soccer. And how we should start helping our clients scrimmage more. Don't ramble about sports and then also tell me about how your wife gardens. It enforces the gender stereotype that business, like professional sports, is for men.

Serve up.

Serving up is the perfectly reasonable idea of making your boss's life easier and better. The idea of serving up is supports the idea that you work for someone else in order to help them. While he accurately distinguishes this as a unique skill set, it also made my skin crawl a bit. And I have been trying to reconcile why. I think there are three reasons, this book did not resonate with me.

  1. He spends a lot of time distinguishing between serving up and kissing up. I didn't see the distinction. His approach seemed very transparent, and as a proud member of Generation X, I am cynical that this fine line exists.

  2. I was troubled was how "masculine" his approach seemed. I feel like I finally got my hands on the "bro" handbook that nobody had every told me about. I wondered throughout the book if this parallel universe exists where men get away with such blatantly fraternal behavior. There is ample evidence that if women implemented the ideas in this book they would be seen as aggressive or manipulative or just trouble. For example, he recommends proactively engaging your peers to help them do their jobs better. Well, yes. And yikes. He even goes as far to whimsically mention The Art of War and the movie Wall Street as what the world could be like if we didn't need to bother convincing our employees of why things need to change, but instead they would just do what they were told. I wonder who he was appealing to with those references?

  3. I have never been a good middle manger: Ask anyone who knows me, I am a fighter, a warrior. I am someone who says no. I am a devil's advocate, an under-dog advocate, a dreamer, an inquisitor. I always want to know why. There didn't seem to be space in this middle manager world of serving up for a whole cross section of people like me! And Silicon Valley is flooded with people who are the dreamers, the resisters and the inventors.

As an alternative to serving up and falling in line and doing what you are told, I would recommend instead that you are acknowledge that you are there to create value for your organization and fuel their long-term shareholder value (and maybe to make the world a better place). And if you don't think the UP is getting it right, you have an obligation to resist and be better. And then you will no longer be a middle manager and so maybe that is just my point! I would be a terrible middle manager!

If you are looking to work with a coach who is can help you get out of the middle management rut and will tell it like it is, I'd love to help you cultivate your own leadership success story, send me a message on the website or at

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