How to be a good middle manager
When UK retailer JD Sports announced the departure of its long-term boss Peter Cowgill last month, Chris Bird, a former non-executive director, predicted the company would be all right. “They’ve got good middle management in there with that JD DNA,” he said.
This was unusual backing for an often-derided manager group. “The very phrase ‘middle managers’ evokes mediocrity,” a 2001 Harvard Business Review article said. Middle managers have been under a 25 to 30-year assault, said McKinsey partner Bill Schaninger in a podcast last year. Michael Hammer and James Champy’s 1993 book Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, had “triggered a non-stop look at what we’re getting from the middle”, Schaninger said. The answer, in the view of many companies, was not much.
Bryan Hancock, another McKinsey partner, said the Covid-19 crisis had persuaded some top executives that there was even less need for middle managers. Those senior bosses had to make fast decisions during the pandemic, including moving to digital channels. And having taken action in weeks that once took years, many top executives felt maybe they could do that without as many management layers beneath them.
But while companies will probably continue to hack away at middle management when cost cutting, organisations will, as the McKinsey podcast says, always need people in the middle. Not everyone can report to the chief executive and, unless they founded the company, all top executives once spent some time in the middle themselves.
The issue, when you become a middle manager, is how to be a good one. It is a difficult job because, as the name suggests, you are stuck in the middle. You are no longer part of the gang that can grumble about how out of touch management is, or how incompetent their recent decisions show them to be. As a middle manager you have no hand in making those decisions, yet you have to implement them.
It is tempting, in these circumstances, to become the worst sort of middle manager — ruthlessly enforcing top management’s will, regardless of your own qualms or the complaints from below. “Kissing up and kicking down” may win you promotion one day, but will get you no respect from those you then have to lead.
Joining in the moaning will not impress them either. First, you have power over those doing the grumbling; you probably have a say over their promotion or bonus prospects, or which shifts they do. Second, you are paid more.
Instead, your role should be to represent the organisation to the front line, and the front line to the organisation. You may not have made the decisions, but you can at least outline the thinking behind them. As you are more familiar with top management’s deliberations, you can explain their priorities. (If you do not believe in those priorities, you are better off leaving.)
You also have a crucial role in representing the staff to the bosses. This is not just about reporting what people are unhappy about. It is also about passing upwards the suggestions of those who deal with the customers. These frontline staff are often a source of entrepreneurial ideas that are seldom heard or acted on.
That Harvard Business Review article — which was actually called “In praise of middle managers” — pointed out that middle managers usually know more people in the organisation than their superiors do. As a middle manager, you probably have more to do with the new recruits and more day-to-day contact with those who have been there longer. Middle managers, HBR said, are “far better than most senior executives are at leveraging the informal networks at a company”. You understand the culture in ways that top executives may have lost sight of. As Bird said of JD Sports, you are a custodian of the company’s DNA.
Being closer to those doing the work, you know who is involved with crucial jobs. You can lobby for more money for the projects that are worthwhile and carve out space for the people doing them. As Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee wrote in their book Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People, you can “protect them from the rain”.
As a middle manager, you are more likely to know who is struggling personally and who needs help. Without alert middle managers, these troubled people can become a danger to themselves and to the organisation. You can flag up their problems.
With staff increasingly working from home, or coming into the office less often under hybrid working, the emotional bridge you provide is vital. Far from the pandemic showing we need fewer middle managers, we need the best of them more than ever.