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Rise up, middle managers! Seize control of your destiny

"Power to the people!"

That's the message large organizations are giving middle managers as they work to streamline their organizations.

“Proponents of flat organizations,” writes the Bartleby columnist in The Economist, “say they give each employee added responsibility: bosses with dozens of flunkeys can hardly be expected to micromanage them. Uncluttered organigrams make companies more agile, enable faster decision-making and trim costs to boot.”

Furthermore, according to Bartleby, “Several factors contributed to the ‘flattening’ trend. Businesses discovered that having lots of mini-barons could lead to stultifying silos. New ways of working — starting with modern technology — mean that executives can manage more subordinates, including some far away. Add enough direct reports to each supervisor, and the number of rungs between the chief executive and the graduate trainee shrinks accordingly.”

Work from anywhere

These moves are coming in the wake of the work-from-anywhere trend that the pandemic has accelerated. Moreover, senior management sees an opportunity to reduce headcount as hybrid offices become more common – with employees spending up to four or five days per week on-site or showing up as infrequently as one or two days a month, if at all.

Middle managers are not doomed as a class, however. On the contrary, they may become even more critical.

“When a majority of employees are remote, a manager may be considered a tool to organize the assets of an organization and utilize them to their fullest, rather than a title that mostly means ‘I make sure you’re actually working,’” writes Ed Zitron in The Atlantic. “A great manager (like a great coach) can take a good worker and make them great, or take an average worker and make them good. It’s an adjustment from seeing the young as employees who must be tolerated until they’re good to seeing them as early-stage investments who can be grown into something incredibly valuable.”

People first

Leveraging Zitron’s theme, middle managers must become talent agents as well as coaches. Here's how that would work.

  • Identify the talent. Too often, the best talent is underutilized. Good managers seek out talent by looking for it. They pay particular attention to employees who look for challenges and want to make a difference in what they do. These middle managers also listen to what others say about the up-and-comers. Who sponsors these folks matters.
  • Coach the talent. Successful organizations are built on the efforts of managers who coach their employees. Part of the coaching is mentorship, or helping to guide their long-term aspirations. The other part is counseling, cajoling and challenging them to do better.
  • Promote talent. Good managers know how to round out the skills of their employees. Increase their spans of control, provide them with opportunities to take on new roles, and offer them access to professional education.

Knowing the business

There also is the management equation. Bartleby of The Economist writes, “Fewer tiers mean fewer people with the day-to-day experience of corralling employees. Yet managing others is not an ancillary task which companies do to reach other aims. It is the precondition for any of their aims to be reached.”

Sometimes de-layering works, Bartleby continues. “But there inevitably comes a time -- for the employee or the company -- when it matters a great deal. Having lots of organizational tiers means that those in charge of managing lots of people have had experience managing fewer people before.”

Middle managers must also learn to think beyond their function. Here are some suggestions:

  • Adopt the mindset of a CEO. Study the strategy of your company. Know what senior management is promising its stakeholders and why they are doing it.
  • Align your department to the strategy. Look for ways to connect what your function does to what the company does. Keep focused on the bigger picture.
  • Communicate relentlessly. Connect your people to the strategy. Make it clear that what they are doing complements the mission and strategic intention of your organization.
  • Network rigorously. Get to know people in other functions. Find out what they do. Also, invite senior leaders to meet with your team so they can share the corporate strategy.
  • Listen attentively. Your people do the work. Listen to what they have to say. Find ways to incorporate their suggestions. Make it known you value collaboration.

Middle managers who think bigger will position themselves as valuable insiders, people who know how to make a positive difference by pulling the right levers. These kinds of middle managers are indispensable and deserve the opportunities to rise through the ranks.

 

John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership speaker, certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, and author of 15 books that have been translated into 10 languages. In 2021, the International Federation of Learning and Development named Baldoni a World-Class Mentor and named him to its Hall of Fame. Also in 2021, Global Gurus ranked him a Top 20 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2018, Inc.com named him a Top 100 speaker, and in 2014 Inc.com listed him as a Top 50 leadership expert.

Baldoni’s books include "Grace Notes: Leading in an Upside-Down World," "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us," and "MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership." For more information about Baldoni’s speaking and coaching, please visit his website.

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