“China and India’s integration into the global economy is creating a huge, low-cost labor force, the report states. And as more companies take advantage of this labor, ‘the transition will not be painless and will hit the middle classes of the developed world in particular.‘” Lou Dobbs, CNN, January 31, 2005
“The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2011, our economy will need 10 million more workers than will be available. Futurist Rick Smyre predicts that 40 to 60 percent of the jobs that will be needed in 2015 don’t exist today.” Dr. Tony Zeiss, author of Get’em While They’re Hot: How to Attract, Develop, and Retain Peak Performers in the Coming Labor Shortage
The stage is being set for a perfect storm of workplace changes that include globalization, outsourcing, and aging baby boomers. The result will be job losses, job shortages, and stiffer competition. To succeed, organizations will need to be nimble learning organizations that can attract and keep the brightest talent. Companies can prepare for the perfect storm by focusing in an unlikely place: middle management.
Middle Management – The Old Paradigm
Say the words middle management and most people will wrinkle their noses. Over the last 20 years, middle management has been blamed for numerous corporate ills and become synonymous with waste and overhead. Many of these criticisms have been true; middle management can be a haven for inefficiency and rigidity. Even so, great companies need a middle management function that improves strategic implementation.
The prevailing paradigm paints a bleak picture of middle managers. They are:
- Creators of bureaucracy.
- Another layer of checks and balances.
- Paper pushers.
- There to monitor employees.
- There to shield senior management and the frontline workers from each other.
Can you imagine what is it like to be a middle manager under this paradigm? Why would a superstar want to be a middle manager? What’s in it for him or her? This is a concern because companies are going to need a well functioning middle management function to compete. The old paradigm permeates the culture until a viscous cycle (some of the best people leave, hiring standards plunge, culture worsens, more of the best people leave, etc) dooms the middle management to mediocrity.
Middle Management – The New Paradigm
There is another way to look at the middle management function. The new paradigm sees middle management at the organization’s engine for change and innovation.
Middle managers can be:
- Obliterators of bureaucracy.
- Focused on improving organization and alignment.
- Change agents.
- Pillars of focus who de-hassle the workplace.
- There to support and facilitate the work of teams and individuals – creating an environment where people can and want to do their best work.
- Crucial organization connectors, linking senior management and the frontline workers with each other.
Traditionally, middle managers focused on being administrators and people monitors. The new middle management paradigm demands middle managers who are facilitators, coaches, and organization development practitioners. Their focus will be on aligning teams to do the work that matters most and improving execution. There will be fewer middle managers, but each will have a broad and profound reach.
There is a buzz in the air when a middle manager is having fun and working at the top of his game. The work is fluid, effective, and exciting. Conversations are open, provocative, and productive. When the middle manager fires on all cylinders, so do his team members.
Middle management can be a great job under the new paradigm. While old paradigm middle managers feel overwhelmed, unappreciated, or irrelevant, new paradigm middle managers are doing amazing work while having the time of their lives.
Take Denny, George, Matt, and Timo, for example. These new paradigm middle managers (new-mms) are making a difference and love their work. They come from various industries and functions, and yet their approaches to the work are strikingly similar.
Each of our new-mms is highly engaged in improving their business. They are proactive by habit and passionate about achieving results. “I enjoy being able to make a difference in my piece of the business, throughout the organization, and in the lives of those who work for me,” says Timo Shaw, director of reservations operations for a high-end travel company.
Denny Wormington, a shift manager for a large semiconductor plant, says that a feeling of accomplishment is critical to job satisfaction. “The thing I enjoy most is knowing where I stand relative to my business performance. Each day I know if I bring the ship in on safety, output, and quality. So many people wait around for others to pat them on the head. A truly effective manager knows when he or she did a good job and shouldn’t rely on anyone else to tell him or her.”
Results through People
You can sense the energy and pride these new-mms feel when they talk about their teams. Their jobs center on helping people excel by providing excellent coaching, planning, communication, and reinforcement. “Management is about them, not you,” says Timo. “It’s about helping individuals be the best they can be, and bringing them together until everyone on the team is performing well.” Matt Sunshine, group director of sales development for a large radio broadcasting company, agrees and suggests that people follow leaders who provide relevance and are trusted to offer good, solid guidance. George Goodman, who leads a research and development lab for a large semiconductor company, said “I make a difference by encouraging the growth and effective performance of other people. I love it when somebody who has been just getting by catches fire and really gets into his or her work.”
New-mms agree that helping people grow is one of the best and most important parts of their job. Matt enjoys making a difference by helping team members make big things happen. “I love watching people develop, seeing a manager get his or her team turned around and organized in a way that is a phenomenal success. There’s nothing better than watching and helping a sales manager implement a plan and seeing him or her hit the numbers.”
George has a great way at looking at managing up, too. He treats his managers the same way as he treats the people who work for him. It’s not about power or hierarchy – it’s about ensuring that he is working productively with everyone. George knows this helps him be successful and focused. He takes and shares copious notes at meetings to be sure agreements are clear. He believes in addressing things crisply and acknowledging the elephant in the corner of the room. “I am accountable for the results so I have to be accountable for how I lead.”
Providing Context and Focus
An important part of the new middle management paradigm is making sure teams are aligned for success. These new-mms acknowledge and enjoy this aspect of their role. Matt knows that he represents the culture of his company. “While our sales managers are charged with the responsibility for the monthly numbers and metrics, I introduce and keep us focused on the company’s core principals and mission.” Denny thinks it is important that he knows the critical success indicators and sifts through all of the information to focus on what really matters to his team.
“I believe in leading by example,” says Timo. “By working hard and playing hard – having fun while you’re doing it. By being compassionate and caring. Holding people accountable, but helping them succeed. I place an emphasis on ensuring the tools, support, and training are in place for team and individual success. I establish the pace of the environment – and it’s brisk!”
Denny chimes in, “In any given week I will migrate between coaching, directing, and supporting. Most of the time I try to be cool, calm, and collected on the outside regardless of what is going on inside. If I run around with my hair on fire, then 300+ people will run around with their hair on fire, which usually does not foster a productive environment.”
It’s all about perspective. These new-mms enjoy their work because it’s fun, meaningful, and makes a difference. They have an impact because they serve their team members and own business results. They have adopted the new paradigm and know that middle management is challenging, satisfying, and a privilege.
Reinventing Middle Management
The current middle management ranks are ripe for reinvention. Most middle managers want to have a positive impact and are frustrated with the current state. Reinventing middle management is a significant change process and one that is best done with the participation and input of those currently in place. Companies who use their middle managers’ collective knowledge of and commitment to the company to fuel a reinvention will be rewarded with quicker and deeper improvements in productivity and focus.
Reinventing middle management requires courage and flexibility. To get to the new vision of middle management, companies will need to begin a few new practices and discontinue many tasks. You will need to realign some processes and communication channels, too. The change effort is worth it, however, so here’s how to get started:
Redefine the Middle Manager’s Role
Scrap the old job description and start from scratch. Design jobs that have the potential to significantly impact the organization. The new-mm job description should include facilitative versus monitoring tasks. Here’s a formula for new-mm jobs
OD + TRN + PM + pf = NEW-MM
Under the new paradigm, middle management roles (all the way up to VPs) will be comprised on the following disciplines:
- OD: A healthy dose of organization development including process improvement, change management, organization alignment, strategy implementation, and group process.
- TRN: A healthy dose of training and development including one-on-one and team coaching, facilitation, and talent management.
- PM: A healthy dose of project management
- pf: And a bit of performance facilitation. Performance facilitation should not be confused with people management or performance management. Performance facilitation means taking ownership for communicating performance expectations, communicating performance results and handling performance challenges. In the new paradigm, middle managers do not relate to employees in a parental boss-subordinate manner.
The redefined middle management role should feed into changes in the ways middle managers are selected, promoted, measured, and developed. You will want to provide facilitation and organization development training for all middle managers. This need not take a lot of time or money, and much of it can be done within projects and work assignments. Ask your training and OD professionals to regularly support and coach middle managers.
Connect Middle and Senior Management
New-mms are successful when their vision, goals, and priorities are crystal clear. To accomplish this, you need to redevelop regular communication channels between middle and senior management. Clarity and commitment come from great dialogue (two-way, open, creative). These communication channels are also important for ensuring that middle managers share organization capacity concerns and ideas.
Your expectations of new-mms should be much higher and simpler. Nothing will sabotage your reinvention efforts faster than disconnected roles and expectations. If you redefine the new-mm role and provide needed training, your expectations should be aligned with the role’s design. It is not enough to communicate the expectations once. As with any major change, the desired state must be communicated and clarified many times. Be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the old middle management behaviors! Here are a few examples of new expectations for middle management:
- Exist to make things happen, not to oversee what is going to occur on its own.
- Must be accountable and take ownership of their piece of the business.
- Will make a positive contribution to the business.
- Think creatively and proactively, and take the initiative to improve individual and team performance (including their own).
- Are outstanding role models. They know they influence the culture and tone of the business.
- Develop and maintain productive business relationships. Management is a social act.
- Develop and lead flexible and nimble teams and facilitate change as needed.
- Enable execution and produce results.
De-hassle the Work Environment
This can be the most enjoyable part of the reinvention process but requires everyone to roll up his or her sleeves and get into the corporate mucky muck. Dehassling the work environment means reducing unnecessary steps, obliterating irritating barriers, cutting through bureaucracy, and simplifying work steps. In general, your goal should be to fix things that make work a hassle.
7 Ways to Mentally Transition from the Old to the New Middle Management Paradigm
- Get engaged. Get active – mentally and physically. Embrace your important role.
- Take the initiative to have impact. Be proactive about adding value and making a difference every day.
- Set the pace and establish the culture. Team members will see the organization through your eyes, words, and actions. You can make it a great place to work!
- Enjoy being in the thick of things. Help get everyone on the same page and moving forward with velocity. It’s a great ride!
- Relish the variety. Enjoy the diversity each day can bring when you are not mired in the minutia.
- Welcome the opportunity to be of service. Appreciate the contribution of providing great management service to team members.
- Embrace opportunities to help people and the organization grow. Facilitate team member learning and application of new insights.
Forward to the New Paradigm! The new middle management vision offers a powerful future. Do you want to begin enjoying the rewards? The sooner you embark on the reinvention process the more competitive your company will be. In addition, by reinventing middle management now, the function and discipline will be ready to respond to the looming perfect storm. Your middle management team will be smaller, focused, nimble, and a tool that will enable your company to change and succeed.