Why companies must do more to save their most valuable resource.
Middle managers are under siege — again. After years of unprecedented growth and hiring, companies like Meta, Alphabet and FedEx have laid off tens of thousands of managers in hopes of reducing corporate bloat. In tough times, middle managers have been easy targets because they’re viewed as paper-pushing bureaucrats who merely give orders to subordinates and kiss up to senior management.
Unfortunately, this thinking is reductive and often wrong. In fact, middle managers might be the most important drivers of business. According to a Wharton School study that focused on the gaming industry, workers who made the games contributed to 7 percent of revenues, while managers who coordinated the work contributed 22 percent to revenues. Moreover, good middle managers inspire employees, minimize confusion and roadblocks, and act as a buffer to senior management. For the average worker, their manager is more important to their success and well-being than the CEO!
So, why are middle managers continually targeted in layoffs? In many instances, their work is invisible because their duties and responsibilities are not well defined. This leads to the misperception that they don’t contribute much value. In addition, middle managers don’t receive adequate learning to be successful at their jobs.
To avoid mass layoffs in the future, companies must take steps to understand the enormous value middle managers bring to the table and nurture their talent.
Defining middle manager roles and expectations
Companies should start by clearly defining all the duties and responsibilities of their middle managers. This will help make middle manager contributions more visible and easier to evaluate. It’s also important to create a system that tracks progress and continually assesses duties and responsibilities to ensure the scope is manageable.
Expectations for success must be clear and realistic. For example, a manager might be tasked with managing a team of 10, doing the internal politicking for the team, and being an individual contributor on various projects. Companies should be clear on the amount of time spent on each area, and specific outcomes that should be achieved every quarter.
Clear roles reduce corporate bloat
Clear duties, responsibilities and expectations will help companies determine how many middle managers they need and where they are needed. If there are too many managers, some are likely only doing individual contributor work.
Managing middle manager numbers from the start will help reduce bloat and avoid the distraction and turmoil of mass layoffs.
Learning and development
Middle managers, and especially first-time managers, need adequate training on how to manage teams and projects. Many were promoted after being standout individual contributors and they need a whole new skill set to succeed as a manager. Without adequate learning, middle managers tend to focus more on individual work because that’s what they know best.
Unfortunately, middle managers often receive the least amount of ongoing learning, and arguably, they are the ones who need it the most. They are the first line of contact for workers and have the most impact on productivity.
Compounding the problem is that learning initiatives are being scaled back to reduce costs. Companies should rethink this because learning programs are very effective at teaching management skills. For example, Microsoft automatically enrolled new managers into a nine-month program. They all met for a week of intensive training and then received more learning over nine months. Participants also formed valuable support networks with peers across the company. Many people stayed at Microsoft just to go through the program.
IBM and Xerox had robust learning programs for salespeople that mimicked university-style learning. These programs produced highly professional and effective salespeople.
Companies should consider balancing the desire to do things as quickly and as cheaply as possible with implementing learning that takes more time and money but yields the results they are looking for.
Separate tracks for middle managers vs individual contributors
Becoming a manager has been the traditional way to climb the corporate ladder and earn higher salaries, but not everyone is meant to be one. It’s extremely important to select people with the right skillset and temperament to be managers.
Moreover, many workers don’t want to become managers. Companies need to recognize the value of both managers and individual contributors and create separate career tracks so that both can continue to grow their skills, advance in the company and get raises. In addition, separate tracks help reduce bloat in management.
Conclusion: Middle managers provide enormous value, but they are woefully neglected. They must get more attention, guidance, support and development. Companies that continue to underinvest and blame middle managers do so at their own peril.
Written by Juliana Stancampiano.
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