Middle managers don’t get much respect. All of the glory goes to the CEOs and senior executives, who in turn focus their own occasional reward programs on the “worker bees.” Middle managers play a vital role in most organizations, but it’s a shame that many middle managers don’t understand their role, or see their jobs only as stepping stones to higher management.
In my experience, there are four vital aspects of the middle manager job:
- Concentrate effort where it’s needed
- Focus the work of the organization on what’s relevant and productive
- Motivate employees to do this focused work
- Don’t put effort where it’s not needed
- Prevent work on things which aren’t relevant or aren’t productive
- Coordinate efforts of the organization with peer groups or with other organizations
- Support the employees of the organization by eliminating roadblocks and barriers to success
- Get the tools and resources that the employees need
- Provide a good working environment
- Resolve any personal disagreements among the employees in order to maintain a positive working experience for everyone
- Represent the employees upward in the organization, so that outstanding employees can be recognized for their talents and potential
- Help a few employees to realize that they are better off working elsewhere (Yes, I consider it support when you don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole, but instead help find a square hole elsewhere.)
- Build the organization and its capabilities by hiring as needed and by training the employees who are there
- Improve the individuals within the organization by increasing their talents and capabilities
- Advance the careers of the individuals who work for you
This all sounds obvious, right? So where do middle managers go wrong?
I see most failing middle managers ignoring the first aspect: focus. They react to things that are thrown at them instead of keeping the overall perspective that is necessary to truly prioritize the work that needs to be done. There’s a big difference between important and urgent, but many middle managers see them as synonyms. As a result, they work in continual crisis mode, moving from one crisis to the next without ever thinking about the purpose of their organization and how it is supposed to contribute to the company’s bottom line.
The second most common failure I see is in the area of support. The managers somehow get the impression that the employees are supposed to support the manager instead of the other way around. Yes, I admit that there are reciprocal aspects of support: employees need to support their managers in certain ways. And yes, some employee positions, like administrative assistants, are truly there to support a manager. But think about it this way: is the middle manager actually contributing any value to the company’s bottom line except through the employees? Isn’t the middle manager just there because there are too many employees to have them all report directly to the next manager level up? “Span of control” is the term we always hear, but the real reason for having middle managers isn’t “span of control” – it’s “span of focus and support.” If a manager has too many direct reports then the manager can’t do a good enough job of focusing their efforts and supporting their needs. That’s why middle management jobs exist.
The middle manager needs to view him/herself like a magnifying glass using the sun’s rays to start a fire. The sun rays are always there, but the magnifying glass focuses the power of the rays to create combustion. Similarly, the employees might be there, and they might have skills and capabilities, but the middle manager focuses those skills and capabilities to achieve specific results that are beneficial to the company. Can the magnifying glass start a fire without the sun’s rays? No – try it some time on a cloudy day. Similarly, middle managers are nothing without their employees.
I’ve talked so far about middle managers, but when you think about it, these four aspects of a middle manager job apply equally well to senior executives and even CEOs. The big difference is the addition of a fifth aspect of the executive job: leadership and direction-setting. The senior executive doesn’t just focus work – he/she decides what objective the work will accomplish. But in all other respects, the job of the senior executive is identical to that of the middle manager. Focus is at a high level, but for that reason it’s all the more important. Alignment is also at the company level, maybe aligning a business with other companies in partnerships and joint marketing efforts. And support and building are absolutely identical to the same roles performed by middle managers. The game is the same, but the stakes are higher.
Middle managers should think less about themselves and how they’re going to advance within the company, and more about their employees and how they can focus and support their efforts. Ironically, by making their employees more productive, the middle managers actually do a better job of advancing their own careers.