For years, I have read that the end of middle management is near.
I have seen organizations lay them off and I have seen organization hire them all back. I have listened to senior leaders explain that middle managers are no longer needed. The future is flat, lean, and flexible.
At the exact same time, I have listened to different senior executives explain to me that middle managers are mission critical to their company’s success. They provide crucial leadership and help the company’s strategy get translated into day to day realities. They consider middle management vital to generating short term wins.
One would think that in the midst of all these different voices and actions, there must be a clear answer when it comes to the subject of middle managers.
Recently, Lynda Gatton, professor of management practice at the London Business School, wrote a very interesting short article called “The End of the Middle Manager” in the January-February 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review: http://hbr.org/2011/01/column-the-end-of-the-middle-manager/ar/1.
She argues that the “classic job of the middle manager will soon disappear.” As she explains, “Now technology itself has become the great general manager. It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports. That leaves people with general management skills in a very vulnerable position.” As her research makes clear, “Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine.” Thus, she advocates that middle managers acquire and build “knowledge or competencies that are valuable and rare” in order to not become invisible. By developing new areas of proficiency and thinking through one’s career, there is less chance of them not becoming obsolete.
From my perspective, her point that middle managers could become invisible or obsolete is valid due to the rise of technology and the skill set that Gen Y workers bring to the workplace. But, in the successful companies that I have observed, the notion of acquiring new knowledge and competencies plus thinking through one’s career is already hardwired into the strategy and the culture. In these organizations, the role of the middle manager is less about monitoring individual performance and providing instant feedback as much as becoming a better leader for operational success. These kinds of middle managers focus on clarifying expectations, achieving short-term results, defining priorities, improving process discipline, and maximizing efficiencies. To do this level of work, they often have to clarify and communication strategic direction, resolve problems, proactively coach, build and maintain teams, and empower people to continue performance improvements. The traditional or classical definition of middle management is long gone in these organizations. Instead, this new breed of middle managers run their area of responsibility like they are CEOs of mini companies.
While the debate over the role of middle management will continue, I think it is important for those in executive positions to continue to clarify and define this position in their organization. If they are wanting it to evolve and continue to be a valuable role, then they need to provide middle management with the time and space to learn and grow in their positions. This may require senior executives to spend more time teaching and coaching which would be a worthwhile investment.
On a different subject, for those of you who are interested in the emerging research into change management and what could be published during the coming years, I would encourage you to check out Robert Sutton’s blog entry called “Scaling Good Behavior” at the Harvard Business Review website: http://hbr.org/web/extras/hbr-agenda-2011/robert-i-sutton. I am curious to read the book he will be writing in 2011 about how to scale up constructive behaviors.
While you are there at the Harvard Business Review website, check out the recent blog entry by Rosabeth Moss Kanter called “Five Lessons from 2010 Worth Repeating - Without Repeating 2010”: http://blogs.hbr.org/kanter/2011/01/five-lessons-from-2010-worth-r.html. Posted yesterday morning, it is filled with exceptionally good insights that could be the foundation for an upcoming senior team meeting or a strategic review.
Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257