Most executives could use eyes in back of their heads and another set of ears.
Enter the unglorified middle manager.
Like an air traffic controller guiding pilots into airports they cannot see through fog, middle managers are management's eyes and ears. "He sees problems and opportunities that top management doesn't see," says Tasha Eurich, principal and founder of the Eurich Group in Denver, Colo. "The higher the manager is, the less information he receives from the rank and file. It's up to the middle manager to tell him if he faces pushback on his decisions."
Most experts acknowledge middle managers have critically important jobs, yet they rarely get the glory from a company's success. In fact, they can receive just the opposite. "The middle manager is forever maligned," Eurich says. "Yet he has one of the critical roles in the company because he can facilitate or block strategy implementation."
When they perform well, middle managers can have more of an impact on a company's performance than almost any other factor, according to Ethan Mollick, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, who wrote a May 2011 article entitled, "Why middle managers may be the most important people in your company." In it, he cites research indicating chief executives and chief financial officers at Fortune 800 companies account for about 5 percent of the variation in company performance. Mollick's own research on the computer game industry, conducted by analyzing the performance of 854 games over 12 years, suggests middle managers accounted for 22 percent of the revenue variation among projects, compared with 7 percent for innovators. An organization's strategy, leadership and practices impacted 21 percent of the revenue spread.
The reason is simple: Without a project manager to execute the innovator's idea, it might not get off the ground. "It's amazing that the effect of these middle managers on a project is not only larger than the creative people, but larger than the rest of the organization," Mollick writes.
To keep managers on the right path, some companies offer training programs that teach ways for managers to inform higher-ups while motivating employees. "Ideally, you use hypothetical scenarios. Or, better, practice on the job," she says.
Middle managers might be amenable to learning and development, but time constraints often are a stumbling block. A recent U.K. study suggests 73 percent of middle managers report that their employer supports the notion of learning and development, while a substantially smaller proportion–53 percent–say they are afforded time for training. Overlooking the importance of training is short-sighted, suggests Hamish Scott, program director at Ashridge Business School, in an article discussing the research. Instead, many middle managers engage in their own professional training or learn on the job by managing under pressure.
A rocky history
The growing recognition of the vital role middle managers play in a company's performance has come only after many firms have tried eliminating the position.
When the United States' boom period of the 1980s and 1990s ended and the economy's growth slowed, many companies trimmed their middle management ranks. They quickly learned their value the hard way, says Adrian Gostick, management consultant and co-author of "All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results."
co-author, "All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results"
"Companies that fired middle managers found that workers didn't want to do what top management said when they only saw the top manager twice a year," Gostick says. It was a situation of, "'Why should we do what he says? We don't even know the guy.'"
At some companies, upper level management tried to boost morale with rope-climbing, back-slapping team-building retreats. "Management learned that middle management was necessary after all," Gostick says.
The new middle manager who emerged for the belt-tightened 21st century has to be a good translator of what are often unpopular decisions, Gostick says. "He's not the middle management from years ago," Gostick says. "He's a coach of a team and has to work with the team. If he's paid well and given the right perks, he becomes an ambassador for the company. Treat him right, and the management is amazed at what he can do."
The Model Middle
The best middle manager, Eurich says, is the person who "learns to answer to two masters–his staff below him and management above him–while dealing with his inner turmoil. Management tells him he has to cut six people, for example, so he's upset about how his staff is going to take it."
Communication skills are key. "He must be willing and able to communicate upward to store owners, downward to employees on the floor and sideways to other store and regional managers," she says.
Just because he progressed from cashier to store manager doesn't mean he can hire, inspire or fire, Eurich says. In fact, these responsibilities may scare him so that he avoids them altogether. Unless he is the rare gem who was born with these skills, management has to "train him to ID talent, develop it and coach it," she says.
Instead of handling each crisis on his or her own, effective middle managers should teach staff members to handle them. "If Bob brings him a problem, he should help him solve it," Eurich says. "It's easier to just do it for Bob. But if he teaches him, Bob can handle it next time."
There is no place for narcissism in middle management, Eurich adds. "The middle manager has to shelve his ego and share the credit with his team," she says. "In the short term, it's nice to take the credit. But in the long term, your peers will resent you."
Which personality type is most effective in middle management? "I've found that both introverts and extroverts can make good middle managers," Eurich says. "The introvert has quieter ways of doing his job, but he can still be effective."
It is no accident that many middle managers are middle children, says Kevin Leman, leadership consultant and author of "The Birth Order Book" and "The Way of the Shepherd: Seven Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People."
leadership consultant, author, "The Birth Order Book" and "The Way of the Shepherd: Seven Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People"
"If ever a child is designed from the start to be a middle manager, it's the middle kid," says Leman. "His whole life, he's been bossed around, so he has no problem being told what to do. He's inherently good at studying both sides of an issue because he's been mediating his siblings' arguments his whole life. He's fiercely loyal to the family [or] company and eager to please."
Management can motivate the middle child simply by keeping him in the loop and giving him responsibility, Leman says. "No one has ever asked his opinion," he says. "If you do, he'll walk on water for you."
Generational Gaps and Glues
"Generational differences" is a buzzword in management circles today, Eurich says. This affects the hiring and nurturing of the middle manager, who is usually younger than the top managers.
Management frets about millennials (born 1981 to 1999) sleeping with their phones and GenXers (born 1965-1980) attending their children's job interviews. "But the truth is, studies say the different generations have the same No. 1 value: family," Eurich says. "They just have different needs at different stages in their lives. The younger employee wants to take off Thursday afternoons for his child's soccer games, while the older employee is more focused on life insurance."
The biggest generational difference is outlook, Eurich says. The higher up the ladder and the older the employee, the longer the outlook. "Top management is thinking five or ten years ahead, but the middle manager is thinking about his one-year goals," she says.
With many baby boomers approaching retirement, management's hiring focus is the millennials and GenXers. "Get the perks right and you attract and keep the millennials. They're your future," Eurich says.
A loyal, committed middle manager can be an asset to a company. The trick is to make sure he is engaged, rewarded and valued. When he speaks up, top brass should listen. Because after all, today's middle managers often become tomorrow's top executives.