I’ve just spent the last six months exploring and refining what it means to be a manager spanning the gap between the people on the frontline and the senior executives who set the vision: middle management. Research by Gallup shows that managers account for up to 70 per cent of the variance in employee engagement scores
and really understanding this group of people and the contribution they make to our businesses is and will continue to be crucial in the years ahead.
My colleagues from the civil service and business have – under the excellent stewardship of Steve Turner and Julian Powe – explored concepts of management, engagement and transformational leadership on the Whitehall and Industry Group leadership programme: Step Up, Step Across.
The main thing uniting the participants on this programme was that each of us was a middle manager in denial. And this was one of the topics we reflected on as our time on the programme drew to a close: at the end of the programme how did we feel about middle management? At the start of the programme each of us gave clear and compelling reasons to explain that middle managers were ‘ineffective’, ‘junior’, ‘powerless’ generally ‘bad’ and most definitely not what we were. Whilst there are some who ring the death-knell for managers this seems to be a red herring around the semantics of manager vs leader and the title is actually less important than what individuals in such positions represent: an opportunity to encourage or stifle change, delivery and growth.
Last week we thought about what we would say to staff aspiring to reach the positions that each of us was in and after six months on this leadership programme the difference between our initial view of what we saw as ‘other’ and our ending point as ‘us’ was obvious. In stark contrast to our initial views we said that aspirant middle managers should look forward to this time because they would probably never again have so much freedom to experiment, play and develop their understanding of what it is to be a manager; we said that middle management can be lonely; that the levers and controls you think you will have are fewer and farther between than you might have imagined; and ultimately it was a very rewarding place where you can act as the aligning force between what the organisation wants to deliver and the staff who will deliver it.
But middle managers are still under-appreciated. Not by us anymore, but we all agreed that from the heart of Whitehall to the cut and thrust of household global brands, wherever we looked we observed that middle managers were struggling to be noticed, respected and trusted.
Senior executives in many organisations appear to be grappling with the same issue: how to let go of fixing problems presented by teams or individuals and instead focus on how to support teams to deliver their responsibilities and fix their own problems. In our discussions some of this would seem to be the result of poor performance management of individuals within the middle management layer but that wouldn’t explain the wider problem. Why do so many managers – at all levels – default to ‘doing things’ when it would be more effective to focus on ‘the doing’ of nurturing others and teams?
In an earlier post I used a metaphor to explain why managers like to ‘do things’ and that is because that is normally what we are praised and even promoted for: best sales = head of sales; best accountant = head of finance; fantastic economist = head of economics. What is less common, what is far less common: good at sales but much better at building teams: head of sales; good accountant who gets the best from her staff: head of finance; flair for economics and skilled leader = head of economics. That’s not to say that sometimes you don’t get a convergence of great specialist and great leader but the collective experience of those on the leadership programme was that organisations select for the specialism first and the ability to form, grow and lead teams second, if at all.
If we want senior executives to trust middle managers and focus on leadership and engagement then we all need to model that behaviour: we on the leadership programme and you if you’re reading this and if you agree. If you manage teams of three or three hundred reflect on which ‘things’ you could do less of to make time for developing the people and teams truly responsible for the delivery of said ‘things’. And please, feel free to use this post as a place to share your own thoughts and ideas on how to get the most of middle management.