From Bloat to Brilliance: Reviving Middle Management

This past week, I had the pleasure of taking a read through Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work by McKinsey consultants Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock and Emily Field. The book highlighted the importance of middle management in building a healthy organization, and broke the topic down by outlining existing problems in the middle management model, how to improve and build effective middle managers and the benefits of doing so. 

This was a particularly interesting and timely read for me as our work with skills based approaches at Talent Tech Labs got me thinking about which workforce populations require the most urgent upskilling. In my opinion – it’s the middle manager. 

The middle manager role’s worth and value has always been questioned over the years, whether it’s the first layer to get cut during a layoff, whether the flashiest new startup openly decides to forego middle managers entirely, or whether an organization continuously blames its stunted growth on them. It’s become so commonplace for us as employees to roll our eyes at the idea of middle managers. Compound that with the exponential growth of tech firms who cite that a flat organization is the key to success, and middle managers are unnecessary bloat.

Is this reputation warranted, though? Power to the Middle discusses that the reputation was gained partially through middle managers who created a permafrost within the organization – choosing to uphold the status quo and create stiff bureaucratic structures that wasted time and resources. The rest of the blame lies at the feet of senior executives who promoted the wrong folks, invested very little in training them, dumping administrative tasks, making them complete individual contributor work alongside their management tasks, and frankly, set them up to fail. 

My thoughts after reading the book can be summed up in a few points:

  • The middle manager role is in dire need of revamping and upskilling.
  • Middle managers need to be freed from the trap of the middle.
  • Organizations must take advantage of existing technologies and methodologies to enable a true “people manager” culture.
    • Learning and Development technologies such as Self-Directed Learning tools
    • Internal Mobility technologies such as Internal Talent Marketplaces and Skills Management platforms
    • Employee Engagement technologies such as Passive Listening tools and Performance Management tools


The Middle Manager Role Is in Dire Need of Revamping and Upskilling

Power to the Middle refers to the fact that middle managers are often hired for the wrong reasons, where senior leadership selects the “ace” of the team to promote and manage the rest of the team. The logic here is that the individual who knows how to do the job best is able to help manage the work of the team best. And therein lies the crux of the middle manager issue. 

What purpose does a middle manager provide within an organization? In most traditional corporate environments, the middle manager is supposed to act as the glue between senior leadership and individual contributors, by being able to relay business priorities and manage expectations on both ends. While it sounds great on paper, in practice, the middle manager is often forced to pick a “side”, which often becomes senior leadership. 

Middle managers are not given the space and freedom to be able to be true managers due to the nature of the role, who they report to, and the general perception of the role. I argue that the middle manager role needs to be entirely revamped – where middle managers are no longer perceived as pushing business priorities down the hierarchy, but have the space to manage people and the work they do. 

This means hiring different types of people to be your middle managers, moving away from promoting star individual contributors and focusing on prioritizing skills that are about “managing”. Power to the Middle goes into depth about this as it discusses how middle managers are viewed as the stepping stone towards senior leadership and salary raises, and so it attracts individuals who would otherwise not be interested in – or frankly, good at – managing employees into the role. 

As an organization, when internal mobility is limited to certain pathways or vertical movements in order to advance your career, you will attract and naturally push unsuitable employees into middle management. 

Revamp the role to focus more heavily on:

  • Managing a team of employees
  • Distributing and planning for work more effectively
  • Focusing on employee career development, becoming an internal “career coach”
  • Being a champion for employee development programs (learning and development, internal mobility, benefits)
  • Supporting change management strategies

This requires changing what the role used to be, but also reskilling and upskilling existing middle managers. Especially in a time of when organizations are making important decisions about returning to the office, or remaining hybrid or fully remote, the decision seems to depend heavily on the existence of middle managers. I’m sure you’ve heard during the pandemic of the kind of rhetoric that remote working ultimately killed the middle manager role. 

The same way that we recommend upskilling or revisiting the work that needs to be accomplished when jobs are eliminated due to technology or environment, I argue that middle managers also need to be upskilled and reinvented into people managers. 


Middle Managers Need to be Freed from the Trap of the Middle

As earlier discussed, middle managers often find themselves in a dilemma with senior leadership and the employees they manage. Feeling like they have competing responsibilities, middle managers have to ultimately protect their jobs and continue practices that either promote a permafrost or drain the resources of the teams they manage. 

To this, I argue middle managers should be reporting to a separate leader entirely. Rather than reporting to the Director of their department, who reports to a VP and so on and so forth, I challenge the idea entirely and suggest middle – or people managers – should belong and report to the People and Culture department of the organization. 

If organizations were to revamp the middle manager role to one that solely focuses on the employee and facilitating their work more effectively, those managers would be better served to report to a department that is responsible for the same – the department that handles all talent management operations. For what is middle management, if not talent management?

Moving people managers to the People and Culture department allows them to work in close proximity with other operations focused on employee development, giving them space to provide valuable feedback on program creation and delivery and the authority to be able to advocate for employees without being concerned with their job being on the line. As well, when it comes to the business itself, people managers can be more honest about the output of their team and the amount of work that can be accomplished.

As organizations push their HR operations towards more data-driven strategies, and new approaches that require more time and resources, people managers are best suited to pick up the duty of employee development in a more formalized manner. Employees will be more amenable to working on career development with a manager who works closely with them day in and day out, versus a manager they may have a check-in with every year, to touch base upon benefits usage.


Leverage Existing Technologies and Methodologies to Enable a True “People Manager” Culture

Such large cultural changes take time and effort, though. And while it is achievable within an organization with enough effort and leadership buy-in, organizations must take advantage of existing technologies and methodologies to enable a true “people manager” culture.

In today’s talent management technology ecosystem, organizations have access to a number of tools that can help:

  • Identify suitable people manager talent within the organization (Skills Management platforms)
  • Upskill existing middle managers into people managers (Learning and Development, Internal Mobility tools)
  • Plan and distribute work more effectively across teams (Workforce Planning, Skills Management platforms)
  • Empower people managers to become internal “career coaches” (Performance, Internal Mobility tools)

Talent Tech Labs’ Talent Management Ecosystem 2.0 identifies many of these tools and the research we’ve done in these subverticals has shown that organizations that make even an attempt towards integrating technology into their talent management processes are considerably more successful than their counterparts. Talent Tech Labs’ Talent Management Ecosystem 2.0 infographic and explainer report are available for free download here.

The obvious candidates to engage when revamping your people management strategy are to consider skills management software and internal mobility platforms. A skills management software paired with a strong skills approach can equip an organization to identify the skills and aspirations within its workforce, identify potential people managers, and support managers in producing effective talent development programs. A people manager could have a bird’s eye view of what skills their team possesses, and who to best assign certain projects to – based upon their skill level or aspirations. In addition, they could also work on identifying opportunities that align with an employee’s aspirations or career goals, while also balancing their existing workload.

In today’s world, a middle manager is an individual who has gained the reputation of demanding unnecessary reports, scheduling too many meetings, and pushing unreasonable deadlines onto employees. Power to the Middle recognizes that while middle managers are in one of the most powerful positions in the organization, the existing model of middle management is broken and we agree. Middle management needs a serious revival. All organizations should revisit the way they currently utilize their middle managers – are they building effective teams and employee cultures or are they contributing to a silent permafrost?

Ultimately, a great middle manager will make or break your organization, our advice is: empower them through upskilling, innovative approaches and technologies and you’ll never think of a middle manager as unnecessary bloat again.

Talent Tech Labs stands ready to advise on technological solutions tailored to meet your specific needs. Contact us today!