Middle management: is sheer will enough to get them through?

Jane Chin


If you are facing what today’s pharmaceutical middle managers face in “Tales from the Middle”, you may wonder why anyone would aspire to enter middle management in the pharmaceutical industry. This layer of management appears almost invisible when it comes to recognition and development, yet takes the brunt of the blame from upper management and subordinates. This heterogeneous band of middle management can include associate directors who manage managers and directors who manage associate directors. They confront challenges including:

• Demands from above (executive leadership team, senior management) and below (the managers’ subordinates)

• Resources available to deal with demands (this may include training and development of management skills)

• Degree of control (authority to make decisions or disclose information that may answer questions subordinates have)

These challenges put middle managers on guard, demanding their vigilance toward the mood and sentiment of their subordinates and supervisors. These characteristics of the job: being on constant alert creates stress over time. This stress threatens to wear down and burn out even the best and the brightest middle managers.

“This stress threatens to wear down and burn out even the best and the brightest middle managers.”

The heart of the organization – these middle managers – find themselves using “sheer will” to get things done at their companies. “Sheer will” is the term I have heard middle managers from different organizations use to explain to me how they were able to accomplish what they had so far. I can hear the fatigue in their voice, the frustration in their tone. I know it may be a matter of time before they become hardened too – the way the muscles of a chronically strained heart thicken over time – and they walk away or mentally disconnect from their jobs.

Specific themes emerged when I speak with middle managers. Yes, we were trying to solve a particular problem, and problems will vary from company to company, but in order to achieve the best solution (or resolution), here are three themes for middle managers to pay attention to:

Scaling and translating your message

Because middle managers act as a liaison between their executive leadership teams and their subordinates, they must become adept at scaling the message according to their intended audience. Executive leadership teams expect messages scaled appropriately to their communication upward, which is typically strategic. Subordinates need messages scaled appropriately to their ability to execute tasks, which means messages may typically be tactical.

This doesn’t mean that your message cannot be a blend of strategic and tactical: it means that you must determine the custom blend of strategic and tactic suitable for your audience, and part of this blend includes using language or jargon that your audience is most familiar and at ease with.

Cultivating internal allies

Middle managers can depend less on their own sheer will to advocate for initiatives by cultivating internal stakeholders. These internal allies should be within the middle management ranks and in the senior management (executive leadership) ranks, both within the middle managers’ own department as well as in other functional departments. Good internal stakeholder relationships facilitate middle managers’ learning curve of the “hidden power hierarchy”. In a hidden power hierarchy, specific influencers in the organization are not readily apparent from an organizational chart, but they are trusted by specific decision makers.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do your homework in displaying the merits of your proposals or ideas for the organization: it means that you must determine the decision makers you need on your side, and the people that these decision makers listen to (and get these people on your side, as well).

Developing your trusted circle

Middle managers form a bridge between subordinates and executive leadership teams and are therefore surrounded by people. Middle managers’ work is primarily more people-oriented than task-oriented, since they are expected to manage people and resources to accomplish tasks. Yet middle managers may also feel isolated when it comes to having trusted advisers and confidantes for varying aspects of their jobs. Having people you can trust to put in perspective what you are confronted with and to talk through strategies for approaching specific issues or challenges is critical to prevent a sense of isolation as a middle manager: the feeling of “struggling alone in a crowd”.

Some middle managers develop a trusted circle of mentors, coaches, and confidantes within their organization, others prefer to develop a trusted circle outside the organization or even outside the industry.

“…the heart of a pharmaceutical organization is struggling to keep its company functional and productive.”


When I actively consulted in the field-medical affairs space, I worked with managers and directors. When they describe their challenges, I hear how the heart of a pharmaceutical organization is struggling to keep its company functional and productive. Some of these organizations have hardened arteries of senior executives who have lost touch with what is happening with the organization’s customers and employees. This loss is compounded by decreasing employee morale from disconnected executive mentality.

Through artful communication, cultivation of internal allies, and remaining connected with a trusted circle of peers and mentors, today’s pharmaceutical middle managers may improve their effectiveness and experience in their jobs. Pharmaceutical middle managers are taking on one of the toughest – and most important – roles of galvanizing an industry forward to serve the interests of healthcare and the patients they serve.

About the author:

Jane Chin, Ph.D. is Managing Partner of 9Pillars (www.9pillars.com), a pharmaceutical leadership and healthcare advisory firm, and founder of Medical Science Liaison Institute (www.mslinstitute.com), a consulting company focused on field-based medical science liaison teams. Chin is author of Practical Leadership for BioPharmaceutical Executives, a book that identifies the conditions and competencies for creating a leadership experience (where “Charisma” is optional).

Web: www.pharma-leadership.com

Tel: 310 876 2680

Do you see middle management as an isolated role?