The Surprising New Role of Middle Management

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I often have the opportunity to speak with high-potential, mid-senior level leaders who are part of my “Growth Leaders” coaching program. Through these talks, I’ve discovered an emergent trend that I believe will have great value for mid-level leaders and their senior management team:

Middle managers play a large role in developing the right growth projects because they are in a position to give voice to internal and external inputs that might otherwise go unnoticed.

First, a little perspective.

There is no single box on the org chart that is under more change (and frankly attack) than the middle manager. In fact, in a recent highly-publicized event, several firms have moved toward holacracy and eliminated middle management entirely.  It is thought that by eliminating this layer, the organization will be leaner, more aligned and able to create more value.  What they aren’t realizing, however, is there are two key things mid-level leaders add to their firms: developing their teams and initiating change.  

Understanding the Skills Gap

Many leaders I talk with in growing firms are surprised that organic skills (learning by doing) simply aren’t keeping pace with what is expected of the title and position.  The truth is that those in leadership positions who came through the leadership development pipeline prior to 2008 were likely exposed to good development practices.  This has created high expectations for those who now follow them.

One reason for this gap, is that since the Great Recession, firms of all sizes have leaned out their training budgets, and many table stakes competencies have not been “built in” to their team’s skill sets.  It is nearly impossible to watch a video class and gain the skills required by organizations to meet their needs.

Additionally, pre 2008, the traditional role of this mid-level leader was established around managerial competence – usually mixed in with a functional specialty.  The emphasis was on growing those under them and interpreting the high-level guidance from senior management.  Since the rise of very fluid information structures, as well as the immense pressure felt by firms to remove layers, it is sometimes argued that the mid-level layer no longer adds value.

Supporting the Real Value of the Middle Manager

There is a different lens, however.  One in which this group adds significant value.  After all, this group historically has done more than its share of the heavy lifting in establishing and leading change in firms.  

The reason for this, is they are much closer to the front lines – both with respect to how the work gets done and the stakeholder who the work is done for.  

Information degrades as it gets passed laterally and vertically through people in organizations.  While this can make for fun at the campfire (playing telephone), in a firm it’s very difficult to retain the passion and specificity of information – both from the customer and the employees.  This places the mid-level leader in a unique place, not to be an information conduit, but an architect of action.

To take advantage of this role going forward, some re-equipping will be needed. In the midst of the pressures and demands of today’s business, these mid-level leaders need to have the skills to not only develop their teams, but also to gain the attention of their immediate management so they’re able to initiate and develop new projects, services and ways of doing business.  This means putting the needed actions into the language of management, i.e sales, costs, time, quality and efficiency.

In the past couple of decades, these opportunities have often come from top-level initiatives like quality, cycle time or product innovation.  These programs provided pre-architected templates for middle managers to load their best thoughts and ideas into.  Once their ideas were in the right format, managerial overview was guaranteed.   By calling for programmatic change, the effect was to provide the opportunity for the thought leaders to emerge and propose new processes, methods and offerings.

However, many times the most innovative portion of this group struggles to get their ideas heard by the mid/senior layer one or two levels up.  Without persistent calls for new and better ideas from the C-suite, these ideas would have stagnated in the bottom desk drawer – or in a scratch file on the desktop.

I’ve found in my work, that many in this role are very excited by the prospect of bringing forward new and insightful approaches.  This can be supported through a two-pronged approach:

  • First, senior leaders need to do the work of developing a specific agenda for the programs they are seeking.  By providing a specific category and canvas for these programs, they make the mid-level thought leader’s job much more do-able.  
  • Secondly, training and coaching need to be provided to take what, in many cases, is well-formed intuition and turn it into an idea of an approach for something “new” in a specific and actionable way.

So to summarize, mid managers play a huge role surfacing the right project, knowing that the wrong one will consume scarce talent, cash and customer goodwill.  Senior leaders need to keep positive demand on the organization to create space for these programs to emerge, and finally, talented mid-level executives need to be coached and equipped to tee them up in an actionable way.

My work takes me all over the world to apply the Right Project, Right Team, Right Plan Framework to help firms make strong plans for growth.  If you’d like to discuss doing a one-day diagnostic session with me on your particular project or program, please reach out to me at 847-651-1014 or send me an email.

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