In 2008, Monster.com ran a Super Bowl ad called “When I grow up” in which mockingly earnest kids declared their career aspirations. Among them — be unappreciated, be replaced on a whim, file all day — one aspired to claw his way up to middle management. The low regard with which middle managers are held hasn’t improved much since then. Experts say that’s a mistake as the nature of work undergoes profound change.
When COVID-19 hit, many business leaders pivoted quickly, bypassing bureaucratic overhang, and making important strategic decisions in tight groups. Emboldened by the speed of the pivot, some organizations began drifting toward flatter structures to become more agile. But in a work-from-anywhere era defined by the mass exodus of newly-empowered workers, the management layer between executives and individual contributors has never been more vital.
“We’ve gone a bit sideways, wanting to wire out the role of the human,” Bill Schaninger, senior partner at McKinsey, said on a recent podcast. “We’ve allowed the environment to cloud the purpose of a well-performing individual in a well-structured, middle-management role.”
What does that role look like? Forget about managers keeping tabs on productivity and evaluating talent. Schaninger said the best organizations should train and empower middle managers to become coaches, mentors, and facilitators, and act as a crucial communication layer between broader organizational goals and how each individual contributes.
These roles should be coveted, nurtured and curated, not eliminated.
“If you want to eliminate something, eliminate tasks that are administrative or bureaucratic or don’t add value. But keep the [middle manager] role and curate it to help develop your next generation of leaders,” Schaninger said.
Automation is already freeing managers from mundane tasks like processing forms, data analysis, document management, and workflow approvals. Gartner predicts that 69% of these routine tasks will be fully automated by 2024, resulting in a complete overhaul of the manager’s role.
McKinsey itself is undergoing a metamorphosis.
“One of the biggest pivots we can make in our own talent-development processes is pivoting from a culture that’s obsessed with evaluating people to one that’s developing people,” Bob Sternfels, global managing director at McKinsey, told the Wall Street Journal in January.
Manage your managers
A January report from Gallup found that manager engagement is on the decline, and burnout is on the rise. The culprit? Lack of clarity around expectations and dwindling development opportunities. Managers, Gallup noted, need to continually develop in their work, and need to have coaching conversations with their managers, just as they do with their employees.
According to the report, “Organizations can influence the overall lives of their managers with the right strengths-based coaching conversations about their work and well-being.”
That means upskilling managers to ensure they know how to have impactful conversations, at the right time, with employees to capitalize on the employees’ unique strengths.
This will require a shift in thinking at the leadership level about learning and development. McKinsey noted the vast majority of corporate training for managers today involves onboarding, compliance, and the introduction of new products and services, with little attention on leadership development.
Business leaders need to invest in not just training but ongoing and immersive learning for managers where it becomes ingrained in the fabric of the company. Doing so not only helps attract and retain effective middle managers , but opens up opportunities for individuals. How? McKinsey surmised that the better manager you are, the bigger impact you have on developing those individuals and building the next generation of leaders.
Champion the middle manager’s ability to innovate
At the same time, academics say, organizations need to recognize middle managers as a critical cog in the innovation engine, and need to empower them to encourage their teams to innovate.
In his recent book, Built to Innovate, INSEAD professor Ben Bensaou makes the case that middle managers are the “forgotten heroes” of innovation. Rather than disregard them as blockers contributing to paralysis by analysis, they should be supported and incentivized to stimulate their teams to innovate.
Middle managers, he wrote, form an important bridge between senior leaders and individual contributors. After all, they have the power to give employees the time and motivation they need to innovate, and can ensure ideas are refined, filtered and, if worthwhile, brought to the attention of senior leaders.
For this to work, organizations need to implement processes and structures that provide opportunities to unearth ideas from unexpected places. One example Bensaou cited in his book: a global pharmaceutical company that trained innovation coaches to help middle managers coach and motivate their teams to innovate. With the coaches, the managers review ideas, provide feedback, and connect the innovators with others in the organization.
“We’re moving from a place where someone dictates to the team what needs to happen, to managers asking, ‘How can I help you do your job better? How can I unblock you? How can I enable you?,’” said Chris Herd, founder and CEO of Firstbase, a fast-growing startup that helps companies set up and manage remote workers.
For many of us, the nature of work has changed. So too should attitudes about the value that middle managers can bring to their teams.