Monday, March 15, 2010

The importance of Mid-level Management

THEME: New Year, More Challenges

FOCUS: The importance of Mid-level Management

Monday morning: March 15, 2010

Dear friends,

Last week, I said that the phrase, “it is time to do more with less,” was one the biggest pieces of management gibberish this side of the Mississippi. It may be correct on one level, but it is not helpful and it certainly does not generate confidence or clarity. As I noted, a better set of phrases would be “it is time to work smarter” or “it is time to prioritize our work better.”

Still, many leaders are stating the importance of doing more with less and some brilliant genius has determined that another key to moving through this economic downturn is to completely eliminate mid-level management. When ever I hear this line of reasoning, it makes me feel old. This tune has been sung in the past with minimal success. Now, people are starting to sing it again.

When I first started doing this work, back when the earth was still cooling and the major tectonic plates were moving continents to their current shape, mid-level management ruled the day. The classic pyramidal organizational chart was huge. Bureaucracy was king.

Then in the 90’s, people began flattening their organizational charts to increase speed, profit and responsiveness to customer service. Mid-level management was significantly reduced and those who remained had 10 to 15 and even higher supervisor to employee reporting ratios. The old-timers in the room noted that reducing mid-level management was going to be a mistake. They were pleased to see the end of bureaucracy but also knew that getting rid of mid-level management was not going to solve all problems.

Then a funny thing happened at the turn of the century. People realized that mid-level management was actually important. Mid-level managers did something that mattered and made a difference in productivity and profit. Thus, senior leaders started hiring them back. The old timers in the room smiled and welcomed back mid-level management.

Now, we are back to the beginning and people want to eliminate mid-level management again. In these “newly restructured” organizations being proposed, we will have senior managers, front line supervisors and front line staff. No middle management because they cost too much. And, from my perspective, we will have a massive problem on our hands because there is a major difference between leaders and managers.

First, we need to remember the wisdom that Marcus Buckingham wrote in his book, The One Thing You Need to Know ... About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, Free Press, 2005: “To excel as a manager you must never forget that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness, but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities, and expectations so that you can capitalize upon it. The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance.

To excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill at this grows, so will our confidence in you.”

Clearly, there is a difference between managers and leaders. Both skill sets are needed and very important. Typically, unless they are very well trained and very well coached, most senior leaders are just that, namely senior leaders. They are focused on transforming fear into direction and hopefully focused on describing “our joint future vividly and precisely.” In essence, they are focused on strategies to position the organization for the future.

Mid-level managers, on the other hand, are focused on arranging roles, responsibilities and expectations so their direct reports can capitalize on the opportunities and challenges before them. They are operationally focused and service focused.

Yet somewhere out there in the grander universe, people forgot a simple fact. Tactics will always trump strategy for mid-level managers and strategy often trumps operations for senior managers. The disconnect between what is happening at the ground floor of the organization and in the ivory towers of senior management will be accentuated when we eliminate mid-level management. Mid-level managers are the translators of strategy and a vital link to understanding ground level operations.

To survive this strategic choice, everyone is going to need to be very well trained and coached. However, training is always cut in a downturn. Learning new and better ways to work is seen as an expense in so many companies rather than an investment to improved performance. Somewhere people forgot that no problem can be solved by the same thinking pattern that created it. Furthermore, most senior leaders have not received quality coaching. Therefore, when they coach people, it is not very good.

So, what do we do if we want to save money?

First, build a highly functioning senior team - one that can solve conflicts, commit to plans, hold each other accountable, and focus on collective success.

Second, revitalize your organization’s strategic nexus. Review, and if needed, update your organization’s mission, vision and core values. Next, create a strategic plan so everyone works smarter and more focused.

Third, sit down with mid-level management and engage in healthy and in-depth strategic level dialogues. Rather than eliminate their positions, discuss how to move forward together. When we hired these mid-level managers, we choose the best people possible. We considered them qualified and intelligent. Now is the time to use this expertise rather than discard it.

Fourth, if you do have people in your organization who are not meeting performance expectations, then deal with them. Engage qualified HR professionals and focus on realistic performance improvements efforts.

Finally, realize that in the end having clarity, focus, and clear priorities is always better than just eliminating mid-level management for the sake of eliminating people. As Bill Gore wrote many years ago, “Commitment, not authority, produces results.” This week, commit to the right stuff.

Have a magnificent week,


Geery Howe, M.A.
Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in
Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change

Morning Star Associates
319 - 643 - 2257

No comments:

Post a Comment