Friday, May 30, 2008

Nurturing those middle managers

It has been stated that middle managers are the glue that holds an organisation together. Well okay, we will live with the generalisation. It is also possible that were there much better collaborative and participative management processes in place then there would be less requirement for middle managers, and for many senior managers for that matter!

Regardless of whether your organisation is the traditional command and control model or whether it operates within a flattened hierarcy , you will have some middle managers, or supervisory staff. They are important. They form the link between management and staff. They are the implementers of strategy. Executives design strategy but they rely upon the skills of their middle managers to build collaborative relationships with staff, to sell the benefits, to negotiate the change process and to provide feedback that enables adaptation. Without middle managers, the traditional organisation would grind to a standstill.

Yet this group of managers remain the most maligned and mistreated individuals in an organisation. They are between a rock and a hard place. Neither management nor staff. Unable to be loyal to any faction other than themselves. Some 20 percent of middle managers will eventually progress into an executive role. Another 20 percent will drop back into a staff role. This leaves 60 percent that will remain in a middle management role; for better or for worse. It is in the interest of the organisation to ensure those 60 percent are effective.

Just as there are numerous examples of ineffective senior executives creating blockages to progress, there are also examples of middle managers doing the same. The difference is that a senior executive will likely be found wanting when they are monitored for their ability to plan and implement strategy far quicker than a middle manager who is often protected by a senior executive. Of course, the removal of a senior executive that has been shielding a middle manager can result in the middle manager becoming exposed to the scrutiny of an incoming manager. It is doubtful an ineffective middle manager would survive such scrutiny.

The problem for organisations with middle managers is that only a small percentage of supervisors will progress into an executive role. In some organisations it will be less than the suggested 20 percent. This can lead to either a high turnover of middle managers or stagnation fueled by frustration, which in turn, leads to mediocrity. Those middle managers on the bottom of the heap, the blindingly obvious bad managers will out themselves and slide back into the ranks of general staff. The challenge for organisation is this. How can they get the best out of their middle managers?

It is recommended all middle managers have a mentor, or two, or three. Different mentors serve best at different times or in different circumstances. The benefit of mentoring is widely understood, however it is a relationship the middle manager needs to instigate. Mentors rarely present themselves to a manager. You have to approach them with the idea. Mentoring relationships are build upon mutual respect, the mentors understanding of your workplace environment and a willingness by the manager to be open and honest.

Management coaching can be expensive and has traditionally been reserved for the ranks of senior executives or up and coming middle managers on a fast track to the corner office. This needs to change. Our experience of providing coaching to middle managers has always been positive. Traditional practice suggests executive managers benefit most from coaching. Our experience is that many senior executives have become entrenched in their behaviors and find it difficult to acknowledge their faults after they have gained higher office. Middle managers, on the other hand, still have progress available to them, they have more to gain from coaching and are likely to offer more back to the organisation as a result. Effective organisations will remove ineffective middle managers and provide coaching to those in this role; simply because good management behavior developed during middle management years transfers to good executive behaviour in later years.

We persist with the belief that managers are born not made - well at least we do when it comes to providing management training. It appears that we believe any manager worth their salt will develop competencies by osmosis. This is partially true, much management competency is the result of accumulated experience. In the past, when managers took many years to work their way up through the system, this was very true. In today's workplace we promote the majority of managers on demonstrated competency rather than longevity. The result is many managers are younger and have not had the opportunity to accumulate experience. So what do we do? We send them away to residential management courses to learn the theory. Yes while there they engage in role places and situational game play, but these are no substitute for practical experience. Dont misunderstand. Management training, and ongoing training is essential, some would even suggest critical. The key is to apply critical analysis to those providing the training. Look for trainers with practical experience to back up the theory. Look for trainers with practical experience rather than just case studies. Look for trainers able to blend theory, case studies and their practical experience. Look for trainers that follow up their training with coaching, so as to increase the potential for implementation of concepts and methods.

Do organisations need middle managers? Yes they do. Do they need a lot of middle managers? No they should minimise the number of middle managers by creating more collaborative and participatory workplaces at all levels (very scary for senior executives). The outcome of this will be more effective middle managers and more effective senior executives and this will lead to more effective organisations.

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