Corporate File

The precious middlemen

Shiv Shivakumar & Anu Oza | Updated on July 04, 2021

In a remote high-pressure working world, the army of middle managers needs coaching

In the last 10 years we have heard business leaders issue slogans like:

1. We will use technology and automation to improve speed and reduce costs.

2. We are delayering and downsizing.

3. We aim to be agile and collaborative.

4. We will outsource what is not key to our strategy.

5. We have IT enabled everyone post Covid-19.

6. We will have a distributed workforce.

One of the fallouts of these changes is the pressure on middle management. Each of these changes is having a significant impact on middle management, which is being asked to step up more than any other organisational tier.

In any organisation, we expect the junior managers to execute, the middle managers to coach junior managers and also bring collaboration, senior managers to manage the complexity of the business and leaders to move people from mindset A to mindset B. Organisations have put more technology on the desks of their employees and this has made collaboration a key skill for middle managers.

Middle managers are like half backs on a football field. They collect the ball from the seniors — the goalkeeper and the backs — feed the ball to the forwards, the execution arm, and defend the ball when competition prowls near.

A company which is weak in execution has a weak middle management. Middle management is a role model for the juniors and the pipeline for senior management. Developing and encouraging them are crucial for tomorrow’s success.

When we make someone a middle manager, we expect him/her to be good at strategic direction, decision making, leadership, communication and collaboration. But it starts with something more basic.

A good many middle managers are first-time managers and hence need to be taught how to deal with people. Since they have been promoted for being solo contributors, they try to impose their individual standards on a team and hence fail. How does an individual contributor think about collective team output when she graduates to middle management? This can make a big difference.

We agree that middle managers need to be collaborative and work across the peer group. This requires them to see their peer group as allies and not competitors, which is often the case. Building a collective and coalition mindset is important in coaching middle managers. Middle managers who have a broader teamwork mindset will win big for their organisations.

In the past we wanted a safe pair of hands as middle management. Today we need to develop a “change mindset” in them. Being steady is not a virtue in an unsteady volatile world, instead, the ability to reshape the future with significant changes is valuable.

Most of us believe that speed and agility in an organisation comes from senior managers. That is what we label “tone from the top”. However, real speed and agility comes when the middle management moves with speed. They can block and delay activities that they are not happy about. Getting speed from middle management involves getting their early buy-in and engaging them through the crucial steps of an important activity.

Middle managers are the backbone of an organisation. Sadly, most organisations tend to take them for granted and do not invest in them with the zeal needed.

We believe that Covid-19 will make every organisation rethink the capacity and capability of middle management. The pandemic has put an extra emphasis on communication, gathering information without a physical follow up, organising information to be presented in an interesting and impactful way and rethinking cost structures like never before. Middle management is the army that’s carrying this mantle of change. Leaders in an organisation are depending on middle managers more than ever. They are adept at most things but in the context of functioning during the Covid-19 pandemic, they need to also reach out to the external world and ecosystem partners. This is not something that comes naturally to them in a physical world, but it will be needed in a digital remote work world.

In a remote work culture, we will need middle managers to disagree with the organisation and the leaders. This is not something that comes naturally to middle managers. This will need leadership to elicit the opinions and views of the middle management. Valuing middle managers will have to be a priority for leaders in a remote working world. It will make or mar the company.

(Shiv Shivakumar is Group executive president corporate strategy, Aditya Birla Group. Anu Oza is Director HR at an auto major)

Published on July 04, 2021

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