Middle managers   //   March 12, 2024

‘Being a leader, I learned, is not easy’: The employees who left middle management

The unpredictability of the business environment, coupled with intense pressure on productivity and ensuring hybrid team cohesion, leaves middle managers constantly on edge, trying to make sense of shifting priorities and objectives. This article is part of an editorial series that spotlights their frustrations and where they need more support. More from the series →

One thing was certain after Bradley Fisher got laid off from his job at an office furniture store: his new job search wouldn’t include middle management roles. 

He was promoted several times at that company, ending up with the title of director of marketing, where he managed a small team for three years. Sure, there were several benefits of the role: increased pay, new opportunities, and development. But it wasn’t all rainbows. 

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” said Fisher. “Being a leader, I learned, is not easy. It’s a lot of work. Having to work with folks all over the country with virtual meetings and calls, I learned a lot about myself and how I interact with people and how I’m perceived by people.”

Fisher is one of many who have thought about what it would be like to leave middle management. In fact, according to a recent survey by Gartner, nearly three in four middle managers feel overwhelmed at work. That becomes even more clear the younger the manager is. Over 40% of managers with less than two years of managerial experience are currently looking for new jobs, compared to 20% of managers with 10 or more years of experience. 

A lot of where that comes from is that people just don’t want to be managers. Fisher admits that he had a perception that moving up the corporate ladder meant going from an individual contributor to a manager to a director to the C-suite. It’s one of the reasons why more employers are starting to build two career path progressions, one that includes people management, and one that does not. 

But in Fisher’s previous company, that wasn’t an option, so he felt the only option was to say, “absolutely, I’ll take this role.” However, that acceptance was followed by a lack of formal training and guidance, a similar tale for most people who are first-time managers, which led to a lot of imposter syndrome for Fisher.  

“The imposter syndrome was seeping in from day one,” said Fisher. “That was something that right up until the end, I don’t know if I ever was really able to shake that. I always felt I was in a seat that was not mine, a seat that I was keeping for the next person to come along. It was a weird dynamic to have.”

“The imposter syndrome was seeping in from day one.”
Bradley Fisher, sales representative, NARBUTAS.

It’s not to say that he didn’t receive good feedback, because he did. But lessons were only learned after a people management mistake was made, rather than before as a preventative measure with ongoing training. 

When he got laid off in November, he knew he didn’t want to be a people manager anymore, or at least not in the near future. 

“I excelled as an individual contributor and I know what my value proposition is for that,” said Fisher. “I was keeping my eyes and ears open [for jobs] that would allow me to stay in the same area from the dollar perspective, but without the responsibilities of managing people.”

Fast forward to today, he’s in a sales role, where he kind of does have the best of both worlds. He is still leading folks, but in a more informal way that doesn’t require him to manage people and their own career paths. Instead, he gets to be a point person who is a resource for several people on a team – “a nice middle ground,” he said. 

“My story is not unique in a lot of ways,” said Fisher. “There’s a crunch on middle managers where you’re getting it from the bottom and the top. A lot of middle managers go through it.”

And it isn’t just him. Alyse Maguire left her role as a middle manager at publisher Business Insider to be a full-time freelancer instead. 

“I fell into middle management, like most people,” said Maguire. “I think a lot of people just end up in that position several years into their career.”

Having that promotion is something she always wanted, and she does remember her role fondly: “I loved the work that I did as a manager. There is something really rewarding about encouraging people below you to be successful and cheering them on.”

“I fell into middle management, like most people. I think a lot of people just end up in that position several years into their career.”
Alyse Maguire, freelance writer.

At the same time, it was a big learning curve of leaving writing and editing behind to focus on managing people, delegating and letting other employees have the opportunity to grow themselves as well. That’s all while she was managing all the expectations surrounding herself.

“It’s just so much more to prioritize and so much more to sift through information wise and that creates burnout, ” said Maguire. “You’re either overworked or there is just confusion around the kind of work you’re doing.”

According to recent research from Capterra, 74% of people rarely or never receive ongoing training after they’re placed in managerial roles. Notably, female middle managers report a lack of access to continuous training at nearly twice the rate of their male counterparts. Maguire says she feels like all of her past employers provided resources to be a better manager, but that there was still room for them to do a better job. A part of that was wishing she had a more clear career path for herself. 

“As a middle manager, there’s so many ways and directions that your career can go,” said Maguire. “You can go horizontal, go back and be an individual contributor, or shoot for the C-suite if you’re feeling ambitious. There’s this decision fatigue where you’re like I don’t know where I want to go. If a company doesn’t guide you in that direction, it can be really challenging.”

And while she was dealing with burnout and increased responsibility with a lack of a career plan, it was always in the back of her mind to be a freelancer. 

“Rather than jumping into the next job in my career, let me explore lots of different avenues on my own pace and schedule,” said Maguire.

A year later, does she ever miss being a manager? In some ways, she appreciated being a part of bigger-picture discussions and working with people day to day. But would she ever go back to it?

“It’s gotta be the right job, the right team, and the right sort of long-term trajectory for me,” she said. “I’m taking my time.”