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Middle Management Needs a New Title

Middle managers are far more than messengers or negotiators for a hierarchical system, more than an accountant of people making sure the goals are met, costs are kept down and boxes “checked”.

How can enterprises "be at work, better than before” through the lens of middle management? Chief Relationship Officer, Sarah Graves, PCC provides much to consider with her contributing resources.

For over 20 years, Janet M. Harvey and inviteCHANGE have partnered with businesses around the globe to identify their vision, tap into their inspiration and find the pathways to sustainable excellence that are measurable and achievable—we call it “Shaping a World Where People Love their Life’s Work”.

Along the way, there was an awareness of the importance of middle management and the lack of investment to prepare those individuals who wanted to move up, take on more responsibility, and lead teams to success. What I observed, however, was that until there was a problem, perhaps an incident of incivility, most times middle managers were not included in the budget for individual coaching. There was a strong practice and preference for senior directors up to and including the C Suite for Executive Coaching. Meanwhile, middle managers were plucked from the ranks, based on individual performance, and with a raise in pay, they were directed to manage an enterprise’s most valuable asset, its people.

Statistics have been piling up for decades about “bad bosses” and lack of retention and engagement, lower productivity, and innovation in those departments.

Here are a few of those statistics you may recall:

A recent phenomenon has arisen during Covid-19 that challenges the tensions even further—many companies are flattening their organizations and eliminating some middle managers. They are interpreting the heightened urgency and sped-up responses, combined with fewer questions via the virtual platforms as indicators that fewer managing “messengers” are needed. “It’s been an invitation to concentrate power,” says Bill Schaninger, senior partner, in the February 2021 article in McKinsey & Company “The vanishing middle manager. The notion of cost-cutting at middle management, while giving the remaining leaders a wider, more demanding berth, has been around since the 1990s. The current atmosphere, though, is prompting activity at the enterprise level, with a focus on revenue savings and transaction over relationship being the leading factors.

As a former middle manager in corporate for many years, the notion of eliminating or reducing management seems like a decision that would harm the leaders by taking on more work(burnout) and the employees who would receive less attention, coaching, and development, lowering their career prospects. Middle managers are far more than messengers or negotiators for a hierarchical system and more than an accountant of people making sure the goals are met, costs are kept down and boxes “checked”. They are working day to day with their team and are privy to their goals, desires, strengths, and areas of development. A skilled middle manager weaves the message and initiatives of senior leadership into the natural development, growth, and progression of their team, increasing individual, team, enterprise capacity, confidence and effectiveness.

In a recent HBR article by Dr. Zahira Jaser, “The Real Value of Middle Managers”, she states that middle managers are “often the people that make an organization run smoothly between hierarchies. Especially today, as companies become more reliant on virtual modes of management and communication, investing in these managers as “connecting leaders” is vital.

Dr. Jaser wants to bust the old thinking with a more accurate title for middle managers – she names them “connecting leaders”. This recognition of the real contribution also activates the need for more investment that moves beyond the traditional leadership training that focuses on how to influence their direct reports. There’s much more available to these connecting leaders than creating followers and that potential is where innovation, expansion, and full engagement live.

In the grid, below, she identifies the four different styles gathered from her years of research. The support from senior leadership is needed and warranted, especially for the high-risk choices:

Author of “The Infinite Game”, Simon Sinek, has long been a proponent of the value of the role touting it as THE most difficult job in any company in his “The Value of Middle Management” YouTube video. His call to action is in alignment with Dr. Jaser and our inviteCHANGE approach as we partner with organizations—invest early and throughout a leader’s career. Don’t wait until a leader is a Director or VP and then offer a leadership program, coaching, or mentoring. Make coaching and the coaching mindset part of the fabric of the recruitment, onboarding, promotions, cross-functional teaming, and more.

Making the roles of middle management “coveted, nurtured, and curated-- not eliminated” is essential as we move forward, Bill Schaninger of McKinsey encourages, with an emphatic proviso—“If you want to eliminate something, eliminate tasks—tasks that are administrative or bureaucratic and don’t add value.”

We recently released some bureaucracy at inviteCHANGE. As our organization is in the midst of a reinvention, we recently chose to eliminate over a dozen meetings and create one, comprehensive, inclusive meeting with all staff, freeing up time and potential while gaining deeper clarity and alignment prior to our action steps (Walking our talk using ACAAR).

With much to consider and hopefully time for you to visit these contributing resources, let’s ask our question for this blog-- “How can folks be at work, better than before” through the lens of middle management?

Until then, to those who are called to be the coach-like, conscious, connective tissue of the enterprise organism—Cheers to middle managers everywhere!

Sarah E. Graves,

Sarah Graves, PCC

Sarah passionately and practically pursues the development of leaders through intentional, organic growth. She emboldens leaders to create an environment where management is expansive, willing to move with agility beyond comfort zones, and to champion the individual and collective genius within the organization. With teams in transition she inspires connection, realignment and forward progress within the awkward movements of the changing landscape. Her belief is that coaching is as essential an element for an organization as the product or service the company produces. “An employee who grows personally, grows professionally” and coaching seeds growth.
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