How can I lead within middle management?

How can I lead within middle management?

How can I lead within middle management?
By Pete Hall

Middle management. The ultimate opportunity to test your leadership mettle. On one hand, you’re responsible for carrying out the directives, legislation, and initiatives provided to you from the higher-ups; on the other, you’re obligated to inspire, direct, and generate growth within your own team.

From this position (branch manager, section director, school principal, etc – you know who you are), how can you both follow and lead in authentic ways? That’s a question that wakes up many of us in the middle of the night, dripping in sweat and craving a BLT.

Following and leading can work interdependently with one another. Doing both well creates the strongest link between organizational direction and individual performance.

Let’s begin by examining the first chain: following. Middle managers are part of a larger organization. Multiple tiers of owners, executives, directors, boards, and other powers all have a significant amount of say in how our organizations are established, what our priorities are, and what expectations are provided. So you’ve got to be a good soldier and follow orders, passing them down the line. By itself, that’s a manageable directive, except…

…there’s a second chain: leading. You’re expected to lead. You’re obligated to meet your agreed-upon goals, stewarding your allocated funding, adhering to local socio-political influences, championing your community, and handling employees, direct reports, and support staff. The key metrics all come down to defined outcomes incumbent to your market and expertise, so clearly there’s a need for local authority and decision-making, except…

…for that first chain. Decisions made by the universal powers-that-be don’t always meet local needs.

Fret not. This is work that can be done — and done exceptionally well. As a middle manager, you can be the strongest link.

Before you begin panicking and raiding the fridge, there’s hope found in a couple strategies for managing your middle-management responsibilities with savvy:

Align everything to the mision. That’s right, mision: that amazing place where your mission (the reason the organization exists in the first place) and your vision (what it looks like and feels like when it’s going spectacularly well) coexist. Are you and your stakeholders, superiors, and colleagues clear on your mision? Are all your ships headed in the same direction?

  • Understand your charge. As a team, unpack your directives. What are your long-term goals? What is the board’s current comprehensive plan? What are the results you’ve been assigned to achieve? Knowing what exactly you’ve been charged to do helps to align the rest of your work toward the mandated targets. You’re going to be linking to this chain, so it behooves you to be clear on the content and direction.
  • Define the outcomes. Together, ask each other what success looks like; how your department/office will look in 1, 3, and 5 years; what goals will drive your work; why this work is important. Take the time to unpack comments to paint a clear and compelling picture of a desirable future. Refer to this often (in leadership retreats I facilitate, we often draw an image and describe it – that becomes your de facto “logo”). Feel free to use our Visioning protocol to walk your team through this process, step by step.
  • Clarify your priorities. Isolate the non-negotiables, determining what’s tight (we’re going to focus on creating a positive experience for customers no matter what, for instance) and what’s loose (flexible ways we can empower staff to adhere to the “customer is always right” mantra while monitoring the bottom-line). Defining parameters allows adherence to imposed initiatives and puts local staff at ease, feeling they’ve still got some ownership and choice in how the work is done.

Connect every single individual to the mision. Great leaders do two things really well: they identify what everyone has in common in order to work together and row in unison toward the goal, and they uncover what drives and inspires each person – in order to link individual efforts to the collective goal.

  • Ignite individual passion. Every individual you lead got into this work for a reason. What is that reason? Are you aware of it? Does the person know it? On a regular basis, sit down with each of your direct reports, each member of your team. Get to know them, find common ground that enhances your relationships, and investigate. Ask questions that peel back the layers of that artichoke until you get to the heart: surfacing why folks entered the profession in the first place, why they stay, and what determines their success and personal happiness. By naming and defining the source of our people’s passion, we are more apt to connect them to the mision
  • Embed everything. Set goals and action plans that support each other, like Russian nesting dolls – each fits within the greater structure. When individual employees’ performance goals help the team meet its goal, that enables the team to be successful, which moves the branch closer to its goals, helping the entire organization achieve success as well. Then budget time, resources, professional development opportunities, and communication structures in such a way that orients all our work towards the mision. Everyone relies on everyone else, and the entire operation begins working in concert with one another – interdependency rules, and networks of scaffolded support are inherently built-in.

Middle management is daunting, and… it’s an opportunity to make an immense difference. Are you up to the challenge? Are you willing to do what it takes to succeed? If so, work strategically, get a good night’s sleep, embrace the mision, and change people’s lives. You can become the strongest link in the chain.

Pete Hall is the President/CEO of Strive Success Solutions. You can reach him via email at

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Peer coaching for systemic, reflective growth

Peer coaching for systemic, reflective growth

Peer coaching for systemic, reflective growth
By Pete Hall

*In a subtle shift from the traditional blog post format, Strive Success Solutions President/CEO Pete Hall shares an article he penned for Talent Development magazine, a publication of the Association for Talent Development.

Download the article

Executive summary:

Adopting a proactive approach to coaching can transform organizations. Rather than using coaching to “fix” employee weakneses, savvy organizations are utilizing a peer coaching model that builds individual and collective capacity. Based on a cycle of reflective thought that predictably leads to success, this peer coaching approach simultaneously grows individual employees, builds a collaborative culture, and transforms organizations into hubs of continuous learning and ongoing growth. Embedded in the article are the processes of self-reflection, tips for HR officials and supervisors, and prompts to generate reflective thought.


Pete Hall is the President/CEO of Strive Success Solutions. You can reach him via email at

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The magnifying power of self-reflection

The magnifying power of self-reflection

The magnifying power of self-reflection
By Pete Hall

If I were to tell you there’s one rather simple, replicable behavior that could lead to remarkable success in whatever venture you pursued, how would you respond? Would you reply by asking if I’m also offering to sell you a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, indeed there is such a behavior, and if the title of this blog didn’t give it away, let me be straightforward:

Mastering the art of self-reflection will help you meet whatever goal you’ve set for yourself. A hundred times over.

Self-reflection? You might say, incredulously. You mean there’s an art to thinking about things? Then I’d clarify:

Self-reflection, simply defined, is the discipline of focusing your mental energy on your goals, making intentional decisions in order to achieve the goals, paying attention to the results of your actions, and determining the modifications necessary to improve the outcomes.

As you hone your reflective habits, you increase your skills, and in a repetitively expanding and strengthening pattern, you develop both simultaneously. This pattern, first published in the teachers’ handbook Teach, Reflect, Learn and expanded upon in Pursuing Greatness, is called the Reflective Cycle, and it describes the repeated behaviors of thought that we all follow as we learn something, develop our skills, and progress towards expertise. The steps of this Reflective Cycle are rather predictable (starting in the top-right quadrant of the diagram below, and following clockwise):

  • Build awareness. What is your goal? What outcome do you desire? What is your current state of affairs?
  • Make intentional decisions. What do you need to learn? What next steps must you take? What are you going to do to move forward?
  • Assess & analyze your impact. After taking that step, what changed? Have you improved? What’s different now?
  • Become responsive. What new questions have surfaced? What worked that you can repeat, and what didn’t work that you can discard?

This simple pattern is repeated, ad infinitum, until you hit mastery…at which point you realize there’s even more growth potential then you ever imagined, and you continue to push forward. Your potential for excellence, it turns out, is an asymptote: the closer you get to it, the greater your potential expands.

Developing rich habits of strategic self-reflection is like having a skeleton key to unlock all your goals, dreams, targets, ambitions, and endeavors. It simply requires discipline to build those habits.

Now you ask, Does this pattern of self-reflection lead us to success in any field? In any profession?

Not only can you experience tremendous success in whatever job – or element of your job – you want, this pattern of thinking is the secret key to unlocking success in just about any aspect of your life. Want to lose weight? Eat better? Improve relationships? Barbeque more effectively? Focus your self-reflective energy on the goal – and keep it there as you mentally spin through the Reflective Cycle – and see for yourself.

There must be an app for that, you quip.

Yes, sure, there’s an app for everything. However, here’s the rub: you can focus simply on self-reflection if you want to. You know, reflect on your ability to reflect. However, if you truly want to improve a skill, master a technique, attain a goal, or surpass an expectation, you’ve got to reflect on that outcome. Think of it like this: You can download a self-reflection app, and that’d be great. Or you could update your operating system by strengthening your self-reflective behaviors, and you can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of every single app in your collection! Self-reflection isn’t an app; rather, it’s the platform upon which all the other apps operate.

So the next time you’re attempting to meet a goal, trying to learn something new, or aiming to improve your practice somehow, don’t just do things and hope that leads to improvement. Instead, reflect – and reflect very intentionally – on the entire growth process:

  • Pay attention to your goals. Be clear on exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Survey your options and decide upon the path most likely to yield success, and stay true to that decision as you begin to take deliberate actions.
  • Assess your impact by analyzing the cause-and-effect relationship between what you did and the results you got.
  • Respond accordingly: if the results were great, keep going or ramp it up; if the results didn’t measure up, adapt and adjust as needed.

Repeat this pattern as many times as you need until you achieve the goal you’ve set for yourself. By engaging in frequent, accurate, deep self-reflection in an intentional manner, you’re setting yourself up for success. Over and over again.

Pete Hall is the President/CEO of Strive Success Solutions. You can reach him via email at

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6 words to eliminate from your vocabulary today

6 words to eliminate from your vocabulary today

6 words to eliminate from your vocabulary today
By Pete Hall

Words make a difference. What we say and how we say it* matter. So, before we open our mouths and release the floodgates, we ought to make sure what we’re saying matches what we mean…and leads us to communicate what we’re trying to communicate.

Along the same lines, there are some words that just plain don’t do us any favors. I’m not talking about overused acronyms like “LOL,” jargony terms like “circle back,” or profanity that’s used haphazardly (a clever, pointed curse word sometimes carries a powerful, emphatic punch!); rather, I’ve identified six words that often find themselves sprawled in front of us, tripping us up and causing vocabularic mayhem while we’re trying to stride confidently forward.

Here’s my list (in alphabetical order). Take these words, lock ‘em in a box, and throw away the key.


The little word “but” can be used as a preposition or an adverb, and those are typically fine. What I’m concerned with, however, is the use of “but” as a conjunction, especially when it’s used in feedback or other professional communication.

Example A: “This was a great lesson, but the students weren’t following along.”

Example B: “I enjoy working with you, but this is frustrating.”

By using “but” in these examples, the speaker is providing a contrast. It’s often done reflexively, without considering the impact. Unfortunately, the contrast illuminated by this particular conjunction nullifies the first clause. The part meant to be complimentary (“This was a great lesson,” or “I enjoy working with you”) becomes void. The only part heard by the listener is the second clause, which now becomes harsher.

Using the word “but” essentially drove a wedge between the two ideas, which could actually be compatible with one another. Worse, the word “but” drove a wedge between the two people – the speaker and the listener.

Try this instead: Remove the word “but” and insert the word “and” as a coordinating conjunction.

Example A, take 2: “This was a great lesson, and the kids weren’t following along.” By using “and,” rather than dismissing the first clause, the speaker is positioning the second clause as a curiosity, as if to say, “That’s strange, why weren’t the kids following along with that great lesson?” That brings the two people together to try to solve the mystery, rather than positioning themselves as adversaries.

Example B, take 2: “I enjoy working with you, and this is frustrating.” The overarching theme here is that this is an enjoyable partnership, and whatever just happened is a one-off that we can remedy together. There’s no reason both can’t be true, and by using “and,” we’re acknowledging that they are both, indeed, true.


Here’s a word that socks us in the teeth right in the moment we need our confidence to soar the most. Is there a word that hamstrings our efforts more than this one? Let’s dig in.

Example C: “I can’t write a solid 5-paragraph essay.”

Example D: “I can’t leave work at a reasonable hour because of my to-do list.”

First of all, oh yes you can! Whenever you say “can’t,” you’re convincing yourself that you, well, can’t do something. Usually, what we’re discussing is something we actually want to do, and because our brains are predisposed to believing what we tell them, why in the world would we tell ourselves we can’t do something we want to do? Why would we put a limit on our potential? Why would we put a ceiling on our dreams?

Maybe it’s fear, lack of desire, or self-preservation, on the off chance we don’t accomplish the goal – then our failure isn’t a result of our lack of effort or talent, it’s because of a predetermined reality over which we held no sway. It was fate, not my fault!

Try this instead: Incorporate the growth-mindset’s poster child, “yet.”

Example C, take 2: “I haven’t mastered the solid 5-paragraph essay yet.” By using this language, you’ve given yourself permission to learn, to grow, to develop your skills. You’ve opened the door to possibility, and you’ve indicated to yourself that you have the potential to do something that’s proven very difficult so far.

Example D, take 2: “I have yet to figure out how to get all my stuff done so I can leave work at a reasonable hour.” There’s a solution to this problem out there somewhere, and you are going to find it! You’re giving yourself a little grace while acknowledging that you’ve got a goal and your plan, thus far, hasn’t panned out. You’re willing to keep trying until you figure it out!

Once we begin to harness our words and tether them to our intentions, we have a much better chance of communicating effectively, bringing people and ideas together, and striding confidently toward our goals.


We know from studies using fMRI analysis that our brains make images of words to help make sense of them for us. What kinds of words lend themselves to images? Nouns (persons, places, and things) and verbs (actions). We can see them in our mind’s eye. Here are a couple of simple examples of nouns: Taylor Swift, sidewalk, watermelon. And now some verbs: swim, danced, rappelling. Your brain has likely encoded images for those words, and those images appeared as you read the words.

The word “don’t” doesn’t create an image.

Try this: Don’t think of a volcano.

What image just popped into your mind? An erupting mountaintop, right? Whoops, that was the opposite of the imperative I gave you. I wanted you to not think of a volcano, not to actually think of a volcano. Darnit.

How many times in our daily live do we express the very things we’re trying to avoid? We save the shotgun seat for the word “don’t,” thinking it won’t really alter the outcome much. However, “don’t” ends up driving the car.

Example E: “I don’t want to keep accumulating debt.”

Example F: “Don’t get mad when I tell you this…”

Try this instead: Say what you want, rather than what you want to avoid.

Example E, take 2: “I’m looking for a way to manage my finances.” Now you’re in the driver’s seat. Instead of picturing yourself underneath a mountain of debt, you’ve got your detective hat on, pipe gripped between your teeth, magnifying glass poised for action, as you actively seek a solution to your pressing need.

Example F, take 2: Just say what you want to say. Ditch the “don’t” qualifier. So instead of prepping your conversation partner that what you’re going to say will make them mad, just say it and allow their emotion, whatever it is, to follow naturally.


A few minutes ago, you read about how the word “can’t” has a powerful negative effect on your self-talk and self-image. Here’s another one that often takes a lead pipe to the knees of your self-esteem: “just.” How much do you want to diminish yourself? Do you want people to think less of you before you even have a chance to show them how amazing you are?

When we throw the common adverb “just” into our descriptions of ourselves, we strip away our power, reduce our sense of self-worth, devalue our accomplishments.

Don’t believe me? Try these on for size:

Example G: “I’m just a teacher.”

Example H: “I was just trying to help.”

What value did the word “just” add to those statements? A subtractive value, if you can believe it! Are you not proud to be a teacher? Is being a teacher a rubbish job? When we say “just a teacher,” it sure sounds like we’re positioning it diametrically opposite all the worthwhile, respected, valued careers out there.

Or maybe the “just” is included as a way to demonstrate humility. Instead of pounding your chest and screaming from the rooftops, “I’m a teacher, hear me roar,” it’s as if you’re saying, “I’m a teacher, and I can do a lot; however, I can only do what I can do. I’m not a miracle worker, unfortunately.” Okay, sure, and…

Try this instead: Say what you were going to say without including “just.”

Example G, take 2: “I’m a teacher.” Now it sounds a little more like you’ve got a little pride in the fact that you’re part of the noblest profession known to humankind. Stick a flag on that mountaintop and own it, whatever definition you choose.

Example H, take 2: “I was trying to help.” We haven’t addressed this one yet. Rather than abashedly shrugging away your lack of input, stand confidently behind your intent. You were trying to help. That’s huge! Our strategies don’t always work out; if the objective is true, however, you’ve got no reason for shying away from it.


Here’s a loaded term that I try to avoid at all costs. The modal verb “should” implies that:

  1. the speaker knows what is best, so listen up (Example I: “There should be more free parking spots downtown.”);
  2. the speaker knew better (Example J: “They should have known better than to get into that argument.”); or
  3. the speaker’s advice is primo, Grey Poupon, five-star quality (Example K: “You should use better grammar in your blogs.”).

The problem with all three? Nobody likes getting “should” upon, so keep that “should” to yourself.

In most conversations, the discussants are equals. They’ve got a common problem to address, a common situation to face, a common question to answer, or a common goal to accomplish. When one person starts shoulding all over the place, it’s akin to a coyote leaving scat on a hiking trail to mark its territory, showing all-comers who’s the boss and who y’all defer to. It’s an attempt at shifting the power differential. “I know best, you don’t.” Do you know who else tries to shift the power differential in a conversation, relationship, or interaction? Bullies. Especially bullies with privilege, which is why I often challenge myself with this prompt when I hear the word “should” escape my lips: Is this a moment where you can check your privilege?

Try this instead: Ask a question (with curiosity, not judgment) if possible; if not, use “could” or “might” in lieu of “should.”

Example I, take 2: “I wonder how the city determines where the free parking spots will be?” There’s definitely curiosity embedded in this question. Of course there’s a reason for the parking spots downtown, and since you don’t know what it is, maybe this would be a fun chat over a salad.

Example J, take 2: “Do you think they could have foreseen that argument and somehow avoided it?” Eek, right? Hindsight is always 20/20, and announcing it ex post facto doesn’t help. However, when things go awry, there’s a lesson for us if we’re open to it. This phrasing shows that we’re open to it.

Example K, take 2: “Would you help me understand your use of grammar in certain places in this blog?” Let’s be partners in this! Even if the answer is “no, it’s my blog, so butt out,” at least we’ve asked if we can be a part of the process. In doing so, we’re likely bringing ourselves closer to our conversation partner.


I’m not talking about personal pronouns here, I’m highlighting the perceived unanimity cloaked in the language of “they.” We do this often: attribute the behaviors, conflicts, characteristics, attitudes, or comments of a few – or sometimes just a noisy one – to the masses. We lump everyone together.

And once we lump everyone together, there’s no wiggle room for exceptions. The implication in the word “they” is 100%. All. Everyone.

Example L: “They hate staff meetings.”

Example M: “They can’t sit still for more than 5 minutes without their phones.”

When we take the time to analyze the reality, we’ll find that some (perhaps “many” or even “most”) meet the criterion we’ve laid out, but not everyone.

In this regard, I’m really using “they” as the spokesperson for the overuse of superlatives, extremes, hyperbole, and other inflexible blanket statements. Words like always, never, everyone, no one, best, worst…you catch my drift?

In poetry, song lyrics, speeches, even storytelling, the use of these literary devices is creative and evocative. In everyday, professional dialogue, it can be quite dangerous if we take the terms seriously and at face value, which is often what happens.

Try this instead: Replace “they” with a more accurate description.

Example L, take 2: “I have received some critical feedback about staff meetings in the past.” This is what’s really going on, right? And perhaps there’s an opportunity here to identify exactly what we’re trying to accomplish, and how can we reformat staff meetings to better meet that goal? Rather than dismiss the practice altogether, let’s examine our plan.

Example M, take 2: “It’s requiring a new skillset and different approaches to capture and hold many of my students’ attention.” Granted, when we’re emotionally worked up about a situation, it can be challenging to approach it cerebrally. However, if we’re truly looking for solutions and improvement, we must activate the prefrontal cortex and take ownership over our role in our reality.

Try these out and let me know how it goes! 

*That’s actually the title of a great book for classroom teachers, written by my colleague and friend Mike Anderson. Check it out!

    Pete Hall is the President/CEO of Strive Success Solutions. You can reach him via email at

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