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Power to the Middle: Reimagining the Role of Middle Managers

By mariana cigarini - Mckinsey & Company
Managing Partner


By Marina Cigarini | Managing Partner - Mon, 08/21/2023 - 12:00

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Middle managers squeezed to justify their jobs for the better part of the last 25 years, had already found themselves on an untenable path toward burnout and irrelevancy when the pandemic hit. Many organizations have viewed middle managers as a cost-cutting opportunity, a way to achieve efficiencies, which is not advantageous in the long run. 

Managers add value that is not easily measured, such as making employees feel valued and ensuring they have the right resources and accommodations during unforeseen circumstances. This is one of the insights detailed in the recent book “Power to the Middle,” authored by McKinsey experts, which takes an in-depth look at reimagining the roles and value that managers add.

The research and real-life examples aim to reverse a decades-long trend that has deprioritized middle managers and left this group thin, stressed, and unappreciated. We see middle managers as an essential link between the front line and the senior leaders who are shaping and guiding strategy. They will be at the forefront of guiding their organizations through a coming period of rapid and complex change.

The most interesting thing is that the authors present a new perspective for executives and leaders, where they propose placing midlevel managers at the center of change in the way we work, the workforce and the workplace. Middle managers hold the key to making work more meaningful, purposeful, interesting, and productive for everyone – including the managers themselves. True organizational change can only occur with the active involvement of middle managers.

Seeing Managers Differently in a New World of Work

Every CEO or business leader should read this book, as it offers important lessons that motivate readers to re-evaluate their organizational structure and seek a more effective and successful layout. Therefore, I would like to share some key takeaways the text offers to help us in our continuous search for better business practices.

A middle manager’s job is to bring out the best in their people, and in that way bring out the best in their organizations, but, in most cases senior leaders, failing to realize this, are putting their middle managers to the wrong use. They are using them as a catch-all to do all the tasks that no one else is willing, able, or available to do. As a result, managers are suffering a host of burdens and stresses that have stretched them beyond their limits. To meet the demands of the new world of work, managers must be allowed to shed their roles as paper pushers, bureaucrats, and rule enforcers, and reinvent themselves as coaches, connectors, navigators, and talent managers.

If only senior leaders would enlist their managers to redeploy workers rather than letting them go, they would avoid a lot of disruption and lost productivity. Companies that had invested in their middle management layer by hiring, promoting, and training managers improved employee performance and profit. Leaders need to listen to managers and consider their perspectives about the business, customers, and front-line workers.

If companies don’t change the way they recognize, reward, and promote their best middle managers, they will lose them, and in a cascading effect, they’ll also lose the people who worked for those managers. It’s crucial for a middle management layer to exist within a company. They require training in people management and sharp problem-solving skills.

How can managers’ roles evolve to better respond to the challenges of the 21st-century workplace?

Redefining and reframing their jobs are vital so that they become the most important and desirable roles in the organization. Managers can take the lead to 1) Rebundle jobs rather than eliminate them, 2) Actively recruit and retain workers, 3) Continuously coach and develop employees, 4) Use data to solve problems in a thoughtful way, 5) Work productively with human resources to find the best talent and 6) Improve performance and strive to connect the work to the people instead of the people to the work.

Much of the corporate world is still in the dark about how to promote stars within the same role. The best middle managers are best off staying exactly where they are: at the center of the action. Once superstar managers are identified, senior leaders need to do everything in their power to keep them in their jobs, such as offering: 1) Higher salaries and bonuses, 2) Stock options, 3) An expanded scope or scale of what they manage, 4) Title changes, 5) Challenging assignments and 6) Flexible work assignments.

The wisest executives will do everything in their power to keep their best middle managers – the ones with true people skills – and find ways to develop and move them upward in their current jobs instead of promoting them quickly. Senior leaders should reward middle managers for the outcomes they create, allow them more flexibility, give them the most desirable assignments, and expand their influence or geographic range – whatever is most important to each manager, as long as they continue doing their important work.

The results of receiving these benefits will be reflected not only in their commitment but also in the low turnover of front-line employees, as many are loyal to their managers and choose to stay in a company where their leaders fight for them. 

The Success of Managers Starts With Senior Leaders

Some senior leaders fail to empower the people below them to do the work that they are uniquely suited to do due to a lack of trust. Middle managers want authority, autonomy, and discretion. They want to provide input on strategy. 

In the 21st-century view of leadership, we see executives replacing outmoded ways of operating with four new roles: Visionary, Architect, Coach, and Catalyst. If executives can set aside the command-and-control style of leadership that no longer serves them, and embrace these four new roles, they will see the power they once hoarded released exponentially into the creative and capable hands of their managers.

Senior leaders will need to reorient their perspective so that their own personal success is achieved by making sure the people below them are successful, too. Managers will serve as filters and translators between the executive suite and the front line. They will rethink and rebundle jobs as they shift large swaths of workers to new roles. And they will be key to restoring the human connections that technology and the pandemic tore apart.

Photo by:   Mariana Cigarini

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