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Feeling Stuck In The “Middle”? Life In Middle Management…

Middle managers are a very interesting group for study in any organization.  From various conversations and experiences, I’ve observed multiple challenges and frustrations faced by this group.  They seem to hold a lot of power, influence and operational responsibility in the organization but there are frustrations from different directions.

Many experts in recent years have called for a radical rethink of how organizations are structured, doing away with traditional corporate hierarchies and suggest that middle management is not helping and holding organizations back.  Some have even advocated doing away with middle management.  During many reorganizations or restructuring programs in organizations, ‘delayering’ the organization is one of the top principles adopted.

There have been discussions on “Is It Time To Abolish Middle Management?”, “Are Middle Managers Becoming Obsolete?”, and “The End of Middle Managers”.  In India, there have been concerns about creation of a mid-level that don’t possess the required competencies because of lack of experience, improper skill-building and almost negligible grooming by seniors.  A 2014 report by the Australian Institute of Management indicated that middle managers are underperforming and organizations have promoted technical specialists to middle management ranks without investing sufficiently in developing the leadership and management skills.  An Accenture post earlier this year stated that If IT has displaced middle managers in the information flow, digital obliterates the hierarchy they call home.  According to them, there is a silent crisis in most organizations – too many administrators and not enough real managers.  In short, middle managers are in the limelight and their activities and value to organizations are under the microscope.

A 2010 Boston Consulting Group & World Federation of People Management Associations paper reported that middle managers are critical to improving overall employee engagement and corporate performance.  They act as a bridge between top managers and team members.  Though they see the vision at the top of the organization and the pain at the bottom, they frequently do not have the support of senior management or effective levers to do their jobs and provide assistance to their employees.

Who are middle managers?
A logical way of defining middle managers is to identify the group between senior and front-line managers in the organisational hierarchy.  Middleness can have several dimensions: middle of a command hierarchy; middle in terms of time-scale and scope of decision between strategic and routine supervision; middle in terms of organizational impact.

How could we address some of these issues, at the individual and organizational level?

At the organizational level:

The BCG/WFPM study advocated:

  •  Delayering the organization and creating larger exciting roles for middle managers, in order to remove the barriers that frustrate them and encourage initiative.
  • Empowering managers to act by giving them levers and authority to succeed, but making sure they understand what is required of them.
  • Accelerating leadership skill development.

Managing time and priorities are normally the most difficult aspects for this group.  As a result of round the clock operational and team responsibilities, they find very little time for their own development which holds valuable impact for their stakeholders.

Becoming a middle manager often involves a significant shift in mindset from personal achievement to gauging success based on the accomplishments of a team (Refer recent post on “Transitions“).  Experts have suggested that the biggest leadership training impact may come from blending experiential on-the-job learning, coaching and feedback with formal classroom training.  This group could benefit a lot from coaching and mentoring – due to the thinking space that is normally hard to come by due to constant operational pressures, multiple topics that they may feel insecure or uncertain to discuss with their leaders and high stress in juggling multiple responsibilities professionally and personally.  The need for active dialogue, support and empowerment from senior leadership is high.  Senior leaders can also help build clarity in expectations.  HR teams can also play a key role in facilitating development and communication channels.

Mastering the art and science of managing talent needs to include a combination of multiple structured learning/development modes and cycles.  One may say this is not rocket science.  I heard a rocket scientist remark recently that rocket science was easier compared to managing people.  It is extremely important to not underestimate this aspect.

At the individual level:

If you’re a middle manager, you have to take the responsibility for your own development and success.

In between all these discussions of streamlining, restructuring and even doing away with middle managers, it is quite obvious that middle managers hold the potential to add a lot of value to organizations.  Even Google found with the help of analytics that middle managers do matter.

What could be some development targets, irrespective of the organization or technical nature of one’s role?

It is advisable to start working on developing one’s own leadership skills, mindset and behaviors in the early stages, utilizing multiple avenues.  The earlier one can build self awareness and emotional intelligence capabilities, the better.  The journey to leadership maturity has to start early (Check out References- video of Dr. Dave Ulrich defining the Leadership Code).  Getting selected to a leadership position would be excellent but an unprepared and immature leader can create a lot of damage to his or her reputation, an organization, careers and lives of many capable individuals.

The BCG/WFPM paper states that middle managers must be effective communicators, implementors and trust builders.  They will focus on outcomes, not overmanaging.  Middle managers need to be able to understand the corporate vision and strategy.  They must know how to develop and motivate their staff.  Related skills that seem to stand out are communication skills, ability to build trust, credibility, empowerment, execution/implementation, high performing teams and organizations.

Lynn Isabella, an associate professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business writes that the role of translator is a new leadership paradigm for middle managers. Being a translator means being an interpreter.  A huge advantage of being a middle manager is access to those in the organizational trenches.  They need to speak the language of top management as well as that of others lower down in the company. They need to understand strategic thinking and the language of finance, accounting, marketing, operations and human resources.

Periodic conversations with individuals from various backgrounds and different stakeholders will help a lot.  How many middle managers do we normally see so busy and caught up with their work, that they have no time for any conversation outside their own delivery? Building a diverse network could also result in a healthy support group.

According to Accenture, a middle manager of the future will know how the company wins at a conceptual and customer level. Making money is one thing, knowing how and why you make money gives you the ability to make even more. There will be recognition regarding the difference between critical and commodity capabilities.

Prioritizing and right judgment/decision making become very important skills to develop.  Middle managers play an important role in developing future talent, leadership and in determining the quality of the work environment through their behaviors and practices.  How would you want to feel during most of your time awake in life – at work with your colleagues or stakeholders?

It may also be a time in the career when comfort zones may look very attractive and there is a reluctance to take on risks or different assignments.  In today’s changing world, if you are not taking on challenges of different nature and complexity levels, the risk of becoming a ‘sitting duck’ for future reorganization/restructuring efforts is high.  Worse still, would be to look back and think where or how my uneventful last ten years of life went?

The writing on the wall seems to be clear.  There will be fewer middle managers in the future and they will have more challenging requirements, competencies and responsibilities.  Some organizations may experiment successfully with none, which may depend on factors like size, scope, type of work, industry etc.

Hopefully, reading this will trigger ideas on focus areas for your development as a middle manager.

I wish you meaningful growth and success.

References:

  • The contingent role of management and leadership development for middle managers, Patrick McGurk, London School of Economics – http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/277/1/McGurk_The%20contingent%20role%20of%20.pdf
  • Is It Time To Abolish Middle Management? – http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201403/is-it-time-abolish-middle-management
  • Are Middle Managers Becoming Obsolete? – http://business.financialpost.com/2014/03/09/are-middle-managers-becoming-obsolete/?__federated=1
  • The End of Middle Managers – http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidkwilliams/2012/07/10/the-end-of-middle-managers-and-why-theyll-never-be-missed/
  • How the middle management became India Inc’s biggest headache…. – http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-04-12/news/38464091_1_ms-unnikrishnan-skill-gap-india-inc
  • Middle Managers – Evaluating Australia’s Biggest Management Resource – http://www.aim.com.au/sites/default/files/AIM_MiddleManagementSurveyReport.pdf
  • Creating A New Deal For Middle Managers – BCG/WFPMA – http://www.bcgindia.com/documents/file52425.pdf
  • Redefining middle management in a digital world – http://www.accenture.com/us-en/blogs/digital-business/archive/2014/02/11/redefining-middle-management-digital-world.aspx
  • 5 Ways To Save Your Middle Managers From Burnout – http://www.fastcompany.com/3028674/leadership-now/5-ways-to-save-your-middle-managers-from-burnout
  • The Happiness Machine – How Google Became Such A Great Place To Work – http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/01/google_people_operations_the_secrets_of_the_world_s_most_scientific_human.single.html
  • Video – Dave Ulrich – Defining the Leadership Code – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC6p9yXdOjE
  • For Middle Managers, The Power Is In Translation – http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/for-middle-managers-the-power-is-in-translation/2014/01/10/53bde1b6-610b-11e3-bf45-61f69f54fc5f_story.html

 

2 Comments

  1. You did a beautiful job synthesizing the challenges middle managers experience, as well as the questions about the value they provide. One important aspect that you note is that in midsize and larger organizations, effective middle managers can be critical to employee engagement. Succession planning also benefits from having strong performers who’ve been given managerial experience and feedback along the way so that they have a deep set of skills to draw on when they are needed to fill leadership roles. Group coaching, more affordable than individual executive coaching, is one way that organizations often address the challenges of middle managers. Coaching groups can provide a safe space for taking, and evaluating, risks, as well as the opportunity to learn from and strengthen relationships with peers at the mid-manager level. Earlier this year, Holly Williams and I published a book called Being Coached: Group and Team Coaching from the Inside to make the group coaching process more accessible and transparent, and to demonstrate its impact for a set of individual middle managers, as well as team coaching for their senior leadership team. Thus far, much of the feedback we’ve received has been exactly what we’d hoped for—a sense of finally understanding group (and team) coaching and how it could work for an organization. I’d be curious to hear yours and others’ experiences of group coaching as a development tool and a retention strategy for middle managers, and a key resource for strengthening leadership teams.

    • Ann, Thanks much! Great notes and questions to reflect on. In my opinion, the power and impact of group/team coaching is substantial. There seems to be a general reluctance to adopt group coaching. In my experience, the buy-in for group coaching was better especially when linked to practical, complex topics that managers face. A slightly modified approach that helped was to incorporate group coaching elements into facilitated team sessions focused on business, change or team development objectives. There may also be cultural factors at play. Generally, coaching seems to still be focused at the individual level for senior executives. Few environmental factors to be addressed may be high competition mindset (within organizations), reluctance to being seen vulnerable, higher emphasis on content based learning. We also need more leaders/sponsors and HR professionals in organizations who believe in and can work with the process. Thank you again for your valuable comments.

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