The Middle Makes it Happen
In just about everything – life, work, and politics — the middle is extremely complex. Being in the middle of the business can be a difficult place. “Middleness” is particularly challenging when initiatives from the top have a great impact on life at the front line of the business. Middle managers are the connectors and mediators. They play the leading role in this courageous act of navigation.
Over the last decade and a half we have all watched and experienced the ‘delayering’ of organizations. Often this has happened as a reaction to reducing operational and overhead costs. The extent of this delayering (or ‘flattening’) of the organization by shedding managerial levels is not always the best decision. The result is that core responsibilities will have to be either been pushed up or down the in the hierarchy, creating more work (and greater frustration) to whoever gets caught holding up the middle.
Middle managers are responsible to service and manage the various parts of an organizational system. Ensuring integration happens with the transfer of knowledge and information, influencing and maintaining synchrony while consistently helping those above and below adjust to each other’s requirements are key to being successful in their role.
In a nutshell, middle managers are those people who combine and coordinate resources. They are the players who keep all the balls in the air while delivering organizational results through people, managed budgets, developed operational processes and supporting senior management achieve their strategic initiatives. Big shoes to fill. Almost by definition, one of the most challenging roles to successfully perform in the company.
Middle Managers come in all shapes, sizes and forms
Have you ever noticed that the people that carry some of the heaviest weight in the company have a very wide variety of titles? Based on company size and/or industry sector, middle managers may be called General Manager, Branch Manager, Department Manager, Development Manager, Program Manager, Project Manager, Sales Manager, Senior Manager, Controller, Supervisor, etc., etc. I’m sure you can think of plenty more catch-all names because middle managers usually devote more time to organizational, directional and people related functions than anyone else in the business.
Today well-run businesses are now looking at how they can help middle managers be more effective by giving them more time to coach their teams and delegate more responsibility. In interview after interview the middle managers with whom I have spoken describe their role as the negotiators between different interest groups while making key decisions about which trade-offs have to be made. Negotiating this middle ground and the people who occupy both sides of the system can be very tricky.
Responsibilities and Accountabilities of Middle Managers
Because middle managers are held accountable and responsible for directing and leading the troops, when things go smoothly, no one seems to notice. However – when things get a little chaotic, it is the middle managers that are stuck in the intersection at rush hour.
Middle Managers are expected to:
- Head up departments or units of the business and manage the budgets
- Manage, oversee and lead the day-to-day aspects of the business
- Develop quick win strategies for short-term results while setting the stage for long-term outcomes
- Define company policies and objectives to their team, describing how they relate to their work
- Form and assemble teams that work well together
- Create a motivating environment that brings out the best in people
- Identify, develop and inspire top talent towards greater performance
- Deal with underperforming employees
- Execute change in organizational plans, manage contextual and environmental pressures
- Move people around as necessary and connect them to each other
- Remove obstacles and clear the path to roadblocks
- Translate high-level directives into low-level action, achieve goals that may be a stretch
- Respond to crisis’, deal with human conflicts and issues
- Solve and/or minimize problems
- Make decisions and trade-offs that are central to the organization’s performance
- Serve as ambassadors and/or mediate dealings between teams and divisions within the organization
- Own the detailed knowledge about the practical workings of the department/company
- Keep up with technology
Think about the plight of the middle manager – trying to please upper management, accurately interpret messages and convey them to staff, meet financial targets, give consistently tricky performance reviews and grapple with ever-changing corporate direction goals. Talk about being caught in the middle.
Mastering the middle space
Because middle managers are vitally important transmitters of corporate memes, by default they become the glue in the middle. They interface with all levels within the business and may even communicate between the organization, its customers, partners and vendors. Doesn’t this sound like the ‘transmission belt’ or ‘chain drive’ within the company. I guess it is only fair to point out at this point that we all know failure to replace or repair a drivetrain system can result in complete breakdown or catastrophic engine failure. Middle management in an organization operates both horizontally, vertically and sideways.
Research has consistently shown that employees are more comfortable voicing opinions and concerns with mid-level management because their manager has a better understanding of their role, frustrations, challenges and time. This builds team trust and creates the conduit for communication and recognition.
Necessary Middle Management Skills
Today everyone is talking about the skills gap for technical and trades resources. Less advertised, but as important, is the skills gap within a major segment of the business — middle managers. Some of this is due to ineffective ‘delayering’, lack of experience and much of it will be caused by the fallout of retiring baby boomers.
For many growth-focused firms a lack of management in the middle is a barrier to higher productivity, increased innovation and faster execution. The skills required by middle managers have evolved drastically over the last f decade from job specific or advanced technical skills to “soft” skills (problem solving, communication, teamwork, and leadership, etc.) that are not easily (and possibly risky) when learned on the job.
There was a time when many managers were promoted based on technical skill, experience, a proven track record and — to a degree — seniority. Often the skills that made them a strong performer in their area of expertise do not effectively transfer into a middle management positions. We have all seen it – there’s no guarantee that talented people in a specific domain will have the right mix of skills to manage others.
The requirements for middle management often include previous hands-on experience and a track record proving management skills. Having said that, it is important to look for a combination of at least 8 of the following characteristics and skills when recruiting or promoting people:
- Significant and subtle people relationship skills
- Excellent listening skills and its softer side – empathy
- Leadership skills, ability to motivate, and mentor
- Open, approachable and an available to employees for questions, comments and suggestions
- Strong problem-solving skills and decision-making abilities
- Recognize when to step back and delegate
- Effective change management skills to work through all sorts of adaptations
- Appreciation of administrative and financial requirements
- Ability to act as a Project Manager building business plans and project plans
- Willingness to absorb heat, and shade the team from pressure
- Good organizational, prioritization and goal setting skills
- Solid writing, presentation and quantitative skills
Mid-level managers are critically important to the success of the organization. As companies restructure and flatten today, more so than ever, it will be the middle manager that will carry the weight. Lack of recognition and suggestion of removing middle layers, many middle managers loyalty and trust has been eroded. The result is that many don’t feel compelled to stay at an organization even when they may have been there for years. If the organization is not willing to make an investment in them, they’re more willing to look outside.
While strong senior leadership is very important to the business, middle managers are the sergeant on the front lines. They are essential to the overall success of the business and are needed to manage change for the future. Unfortunately, upper management often fail to recognise that it is usually the middle management community who are under the most pressure. Providing the tools, training, coaching and support pays back immensely. The middle managers are the people who carry the message and lead the troops to victory.
Middle Management – Great advice from a Start-up Entrepreneur
“It has been said that middle management is like sitting in the middle seat of a plane between an extremely overweight person and a crying baby”. ~unknown