We live in a world where leaner is associated with fitter and smarter. We want computers that fit into the palms of our hands and books that fit into eye glasses.
The world of business is no exception. With companies constantly looking for a leaner operating model, the question often comes up – how relevant are the managers who manage other managers.
“Some call middle managers the dinosaurs of our modern organisational ecology,” says Professor Gabriele Suder, Principal Fellow, Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne.
The term for managers who manage other people, “middle managers” itself sounds middling and unromantic, a far cry from “top leaders” and “change-makers.” In practice, middle managers are often subject to pressures and overload as a result of today’s widespread use of management techniques and performance measures and because of their hybrid function.
“Most of these techniques are based on quantitative targets that make reviews easy and are thus highly regarded, particularly by advisors and consultants, yet may at times be qualitative nonsense,” notes ProfessorSuder.
Critics say mid-managers today may be disillusioned or suffering ‘managerial menopause’ – and thus question their value.
But others, like Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick, believe otherwise.“The often overlooked and sometimes-maligned middle managers matter. They are not interchangeable parts in an organization,” says Mollick.
Indeed, the managing manager is a key liaison between the two ‘worlds’ within one organisation. They are an increasingly mobile and adaptable layer of management.According to Professor Suder: “Strategic control lies in their hands; organisational change fails without them; productivity is their main motivator. They are an essential part of the puzzle that constitutes a profitable firm.”
So how does a firm create value through its middle managers?Here are some suggestions:
Provide managers who manage others with the privilege of autonomy and the ability to self-manage, and most importantly, with trust.
Retain your talents. Organisations need to grasp how, under contracts of employment, individuals receive ‘consideration’ in return for making their time, skills and experience available to the employers.
Distance and virtual management techniques. There are two parts to this. Firstly, managing managers must be able to effectively manage across different locations and time zones. Secondly, they might be managing in different cultures and economies at the same time. For instance, will someone in India react to a given project the same way a person in the same role in Australia will, and how will they collaborate.
Change management is a core strength of managing managers. They are at the heart and core of change when complex organisations reshuffle regularly to open up opportunity.
“Businesses need to continually evolve to survive,” notes Professor Suder. ”Since the 2000s, even large multinationals have a lifespan of less than 15 years; even less for small and medium sized organisations. For the successful knowledge-driven organisation, the managing manager remains front and centre of this evolution.”