Leading from the Middle

Mid-level staff can be effective leaders—even when they lack official authority or decision-making power.
The past few years have brought events that gave mid-level staffers in higher education new opportunities to lead. Photo: Shutterstock

When Becca AbuRakia-Einhorn first became manager of education abroad and international fellowships at Gallaudet University, she had to build her programs from the ground up.

As a “middle manager” at the renowned school for the deaf, blind, and hard of hearing, AbuRakia-Einhorn discovered that creating these entirely new programs meant coordinating with top executives in other campus departments who sometimes provided the support she needed, and sometimes didn’t.

Wrangling such cooperation was “the bane of my existence,” said AbuRakia-Einhorn, who is now director of the Critical Language Scholarship program with the American Councils for International Education. “I don’t think it’s people being rude. Their response was kind of like, ‘Well, who are you to make this decision?’”

That said, she—and others in her position—discovered that mid-level staff in international offices can navigate their sometimes complicated roles of bearing responsibility with no formal authority. Chief among the ways to accomplish this: honing strong communication skills, using solid data and research to push change, building relationships with—and finding champions among—senior-level people, seeking professional resources and mentors outside one’s institution, and recognizing when help is needed from higher-ups.

What Is a Mid-Level Leader in International Education?

In the international education arena, the mid-level staffer or manager is neither a senior officer nor an entry-level person. They may be directors, faculty, academic advisers, coordinators, or consultants. They often hold great responsibility, but often not the authority to command resources nor shape strategy.

That may sound like a powerless place to be. Though as a recent Harvard Business Review article stated, and many who work on this level would agree, these staff “[are] often the people that make an organization run smoothly between hierarchies.”

“A mid-level staff member typically falls somewhere between three to seven years in the field; not entry-level and not senior international officer,” says Jana Jaffa, who is director of international student and scholar services at Juniata College. “This individual is most likely administrative, with possible previous experience living and working abroad, managing teams, or teaching, [and with] fluency in another language.”

“They are the engine of the business, the cogs that make things work, the glue that keeps companies together,” the Review reported. “The most effective ones are in possession of humane, sophisticated communications skills and the knack to mediate and find common ground between actors at different levels in the organization.

“It requires being both a proactive leader to direct reports and an engaged follower to the top management, all at the same time.”

Jaffa will allow that holding such a position sometimes leaves one “feeling like a punching bag. You have enough front-facing customer service experience to hear the issues, but not enough power to do anything about it,” she says.

Tools for Leading from the Middle

While international education managers acknowledge that they face challenges, they’ve also landed on solutions. There are tools and skills that middle managers like AbuRakia-Einhorn and Jaffa can use to create change and lead well—and one key, many agree, is to take the time to build relationships.

“Leadership can be a lonely place sometimes,” says Jaffa. “It is important to find champions both at your institution and at other institutions and organizations that can serve as professional resources, mentors, and communities [with which] to network and share ideas.”

Kari B. Henquinet is a teaching professor in anthropology for the department of social sciences at Michigan Technological University. Her international education credentials include serving as the Peace Corps Master’s international director for her campus' 10 departmental programs, a visiting professor with the University Studies Abroad Consortium in Ghana, and a mentor for more than 50 graduate students on international research projects.

Given her experience in the field, she recommends that middle managers “try to cultivate relationships with influential people in your institution—people who have the ear of the upper administration or get to sit at the table for decisions that are made,” she says. “Pay attention to new initiatives, strategic plans, trends in higher education, so that you can get involved and support these on your campus in a way that positively impacts international education.”

When building relationships, keep in mind the culture of the university, says Jonathan L. Larson, assistant professor of education at Grinnell College. This, he says, may be the most difficult part of any effort to effect change.

“It seems that all places have their dynamics … they can be more hierarchical or more egalitarian, more collaborative or more siloed,” says Larson, who previously was associate director of the European Union Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “[The] defining features of leaning into leadership from the middle [are] reading the situations around you, respecting boundaries, [knowing] that people above you are likely looking first to their colleagues and not you for ideas, and being ready to pitch your ideas and capacity to help to meet the moment.”

Matt Loehrer, lead immigration adviser in the international students and scholars office at the University of California-San Francisco, says he once worked mid-level in a “change-averse office in a change averse field.”

“When someone has been doing something the same way for 10, 20, or 30 years, it’s incredibly difficult to convince them of the benefits of any change,” he says. “I’m lucky in that I’m generally supported by my director, but any change that you want to make needs to be both understood and supported by the people who are being asked to help make the change. For me this requires a great deal of patience and empathy.”

Follow the Numbers

In addition to building strong relationships, middle managers need to know how to make their case.

Loehrer notes that mid-level personnel who want to lead and create change should be ready to roll up their sleeves, do thorough research, and find hard data to support their proposals. When introducing a change, or a new program or policy, he’s found it useful to learn how to use survey tools like Qualtrics and become proficient with Excel and pivot tables to parse and present data in an easy-to-understand way.

“The result is a visual that everyone understands and can be used to start a larger discussion,” he says.

As a mid-level staffer, it’s critical to appear professional and organized. Jaffa has found that before presenting an idea to senior leaders, or new partners or institutions, it’s best to come prepared with data about your own office, send a few pre-planned questions to the other parties in advance, and provide your supervisor or senior leader with talking points.

“You don’t want senior leadership to feel frazzled in tracking down information or feel that there are separate agendas going into the meeting,” she says. “It makes a difference when you’ve done your homework. You’re more likely to walk away from the meeting feeling confident.”

Looking outside your institution for professional development can always help, advises Jaffa, who says that one of the best career decisions she made was to enroll in the NAFSA Academy for International Education, where a coach cheered her on through each milestone of her learning program.

During that training, she had the idea to incorporate NAFSA’s International Education Competencies into her annual review process. Progress toward achieving those competencies would be among her goals for the year, which included moving into a director-level position, presenting at conferences, and serving as a Poster Fair organizer at a recent NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo.

She brought the idea to her manager, who convinced her to apply to NAFSA Executive Internationalization Leadership e-Institute, a program that provides executive leadership training for international education professionals.  In an example of how relationship-building and professional development often go hand in hand, the program provided Jaffa a valuable opportunity to expand her network beyond her institution.

“If you made a professional contact at a NAFSA event who you think would be an excellent partner for one of the faculty-leaders designing an embedded course abroad at your institution, take the initiative to send personal introductions to connect [with] them,” she says.

Hallmarks of a Great Mid-Level Manager

While some staff thrive in their mid-level roles and content to stay there, others may find they want to move up. In either scenario, there are ways to succeed—and there is a combination of skills and qualities that those who do this work well have in common.

Such a person tends to be exceptionally well-organized and has a strong work ethic. They are approachable, inspiring, empathetic, and team-oriented. In other words, they have great people skills, says Henquinet.

“These are people who have a measure of humility and listen for new perspectives and information. They will step up to do the hard work of researching and proposing ideas that are based on sound policies, facilitate complex conversations, and get buy-in or constructive criticism through each step of the process.”

They are typically excellent collaborators—they find allies with common goals in academic departments, research centers, student organizations, and external university partners.

And they are not shy about self-promotion.

They “communicate their work and results clearly and widely to draw attention to their contributions,” Henquinet said. “There is often a lot of good work that goes unnoticed in international education.  The more a leader can make this work a point of pride and prestige for their institution, the better the chances are for more support and recognition.”

Loehrer has found that some of the best mid-level leaders he knows have learned that they can’t take setbacks or rejection personally.  

“A big part of being a mid-level staffer is not having a lot of control over what decisions are made,” he said. “But it’s not always the case that those above you, such as your director or [senior leader], have significantly more control over these decisions either. Universities are complex organizations. When things don’t go your way, there may be a million reasons why that is so. Best not to take it personally.”

Finally, the most effective mid-level leaders, AbuRakia-Einhorn says, know when to ask for help.

“One thing that is required of a mid-level manager every day is making these small decisions about whether you have the power to make a call, or need help from above,” she said. “It’s been a good exercise for me figuring out when to reach out for help and when to figure out how to manage something on my own. That’s a skill mid-level managers need to develop.”

Even Bad Circumstances Can Yield Opportunities

The past few years have brought events that gave mid-level staffers in higher education new opportunities to lead—even if those events were hardly ideal.

In the March 2022 issue of Trends & Insights, Henquinet and Larson wrote that it was the COVID-19 pandemic that propelled instructors, advisers, and program coordinators to dream up ways to keep intercultural and global learning afloat.

The authors observed how colleagues at Michigan Technological University and the University of Illinois—often at mid-points in their careers—created online courses, virtual global internships, international virtual exchanges, and more “in a matter of days or weeks, with little time for careful design or lengthy design-thinking processes.”

The authors noted how rapid technological change, the global public health crisis, tightening international borders, and financial distress also forced mid-level educators into problem-solving modes that proved not only fruitful, but forward-thinking—including helping students caught between hostile political rhetoric and travel restrictions.

“The last 6 years have been years of constant, unrelenting change for the field of International Education,” says Loehrer. “However, I think all of the changes that have happened, as negative as they have been, have actually opened up different opportunities for people to step up and lead.”

For example, he noted that during the pandemic, he himself found a leadership niche by using technology to better serve students and scholars. Prior to the pandemic, many of his office’s processes were still paper-based, which required handling by a staffer whose position was lost to budget cuts after the pandemic hit.

“As soon as we were all sent home, with no idea when—or if—we were ever going back to the office, it was clear we needed to implement some new processes,” he recalls. “Our students and scholars still needed our services—more than ever in some cases—and using email to set up appointments or confirm mailing addresses was not a sustainable option.”

The opportunity to lead in this situation, he said, “was there for the taking.”

One project he undertook was to centralize his office’s online booking system. This first required working with the IT department to find the best application for centralization, then to learn how it worked. Next, he created a demo of the centralization product so he could get his team’s feedback. The new process “met our needs so well, there was little hesitation about implementing the change.”

A Chance to Lead

In Leading from the Middle, author Scott Mautz writes that leading from the middle presents challenges, though he asserts that “being in the middle doesn’t mean being stuck in the middle. It means a chance to lead—in every direction. It’s a badge of pride.”

“It is usually the students who ultimately give me that motivation to be a leader,” says Henquinet. “I want them to have the opportunities to develop diverse relationships, find support networks while in a new place, build confidence speaking a second or third language, and know the power of experiential learning through study abroad, research and professional experiences.”

Researching and proposing new ideas, engaging stakeholders, and identifying needed innovation is never easy, but they will move the needle in the right direction no matter the outcome. When attempts to build new programs do not go as planned, one’s professionalism and collaborative efforts do not get forgotten. Decision-makers will value those that work towards positive change, even when their own hands are tied. •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.