The emergence of the modern day corporation in the last century has coincided with the gradual migration of executive-level management further and further away from the front line. While at some organizations there are processes in place that allow frontline staff to communicate directly with executives, (i.e., a question forum on the company intranet), visibility of executive leaders is still an ongoing concern. This lack of visibility and connectedness between the front line and executives has prompted a focus on preventing mixed messaging and disengagement to keeping companies moving forward. For leaders, a connection with the front line can provide better insights into their customers’ pain points, and front line staff can gain clarity on high-level strategy and see their leaders as “part of the team”. Middle management serves as an essential bridge between the two.
Who Are Middle Managers?
Occupying a critical point in the hierarchy of an organization, middle managers supervise the majority of staff while simultaneously acting as a lifeline between executives and front line staff. In a typical large enterprise 10%-15% of staff are “executive”, while remaining staff fall at the middle management level or below.
Despite being distanced from the top and enjoying limited facetime with executives, middle management is called upon to organize the front line to execute and deliver when a direction or new strategy is passed down to them. This is a progressively challenging space to work in as executives set ever tighter objectives, financial and otherwise. Optimally middle management acts as a bridge between leaders and staff to communicate and coordinate changes effectively, to coach staff as required, and to report meaningful insights back to the top.
What is the Issue?
Despite this key role in an organization, middle management receives significantly less recognition than even frontline staff. Much like the old adage, the middle child often gets overlooked. In a recent survey conducted by BCG and the World Federation of People Management Associations (WFPMA), 64% of the executive respondents said that middle managers were more important to team member engagement than top management. In a secondary survey comprising more than one million data points from large corporation staff, respondents were particularly dissatisfied with the following areas:
• Systematic performance tracking, setting targets, and receiving feedback
• Public acknowledgement of strong performance to solidify desired behaviors
• Soft skills like communication, coaching and teaching, change management, etc.
To reinvigorate this integral layer of an organization middle managers need to be provided with new opportunities and freedoms, rewarded for tracked achievements, and offered leadership skills training where applicable. Empowering managers with the requisite authority to make decisions within their purview inspires interest in true management of their teams.
Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processing and trucking company is an example of empowered managers. Created in 1970 by an MBA student at UCLA, the company has achieved double-digit growth of shipped product, revenues, and profits between 1990 and 2010 while industry average sat at ~1% per year. One must ask how the company has managed to keep up such incredible growth rates amid a close to stagnant industry. Morning Star’s organizational structure is unlike most others in that all staff are given the utmost freedom to achieve their targets, and are termed “self-managers”. Each individual creates a personal “mission statement” and negotiates a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU) with those most affected by the staff members’ work, all to satisfy their goals within their role which are in turn decided collectively as a business unit. Employees can expand their responsibilities as their skill and knowledge set increases, as there are no centrally defined roles. Rather than a title or office denoting prestige, the collegial rivalry is instead based on who can contribute more to the company, and how efficiently. While the Morning Star model is a drastic departure from the traditional hierarchy, it is a clear example of how empowerment creates capacity for staff to focus on the business rather than the “red tape”.
Coupled with widening roles and increased autonomy, middle managers need to know their work matters. This must take shape differently than a yearly performance conversation. Middle managers should:
• Have monthly touchpoints with their manager, and do the same with their direct reports
• Know what is expected in terms of knowledge level, soft skills, and work completion, and do the same with their direct reports
• Receive training on effective management skills
• Have access to tools and data that support developing a rigorous and supportive management environment
• Be recognized publically for great performance, and do the same for their direct reports
Many companies promote staff who have great technical abilities into management roles and then hope that leadership and coaching skills magically materialize. Strong organizations know that they must invest in building good managers with the levers listed above; with the right training, coaching, tools, and infrastructure strong technical performers can grow into excellent middle managers.
Eager as we are to push our businesses forward by gaining new clients, accounts, and locations, we must remember to first look within to keep middle managers engaged. We must remember that middle managers are indispensable in ensuring executive strategy gets properly implemented on the front line with customers. We must also remember that due to their unique position of having access to both the front line and senior management, middle managers have a unique point of view that can generate novel and creative solutions to issues, and directly influence the performance of the organization as a whole.
By: Shane Nightingale, Senior Business Analyst