Middle-level managers are the backbone of organisations, particularly large ones. They are the vital link between an organisation's senior leadership on one hand and the ground personnel on the other. These managers are responsible for the implementation of the organization's strategy on a day-to-day basis and it would be safe to say that a company's success or failure largely depends on the strength of this cadre. A strong middle management also provides organisations with a pipeline of future leaders. Besides, a strong managerial cadre also offers the added benefits of providing much needed continuity and low attrition.
I have seen that middle level managers typically face their own set of challenges. In organisations that I have worked or where I now provide advice, I have always seen that if these challenges are left unidentified or unaddressed they almost always lead to disgruntlement and low motivation which can then, over a period of time, seep in to the front end.
What are the challenges that mid-level managers face?
1. Transition from worker to manager: Most managers take time to settle into their leadership role after being promoted from the ranks. They grapple with the difference between doing things and getting things done. In one instance, it was seen that a star salesperson who was promoted to a sales manager could not manage the transition at all. His micromanaging ways upset his team and despite repeated counseling, he could not outgrow this habit. Privately, some senior leaders admitted to me that they had visualized that this could happen, but were really in no position to deny the promotion as it was a reward for the person having done a superlative job in his previous role! This happens in many organisations as they are not able to think of viable alternatives to a promotion - maybe he could have been 'rewarded' by giving him extra territories to manage or a challenge could be given to him to turnaround territories in which sales were sagging. Designate him as the Man Friday in sales which would give him a sense of challenge and importance. By promoting him, the organization lost a good salesperson and got a poor manager, a bad bargain.
2. Grappling with the demands of a new role: The managerial role brings with it Budgeting, P and L management, strategy sessions, making presentations, annual plans and the like. Hardly any organisation that I have dealt with provides formal training to managers in these areas which make these tasks very daunting for some.
3. Team management: People management, conducting appraisals, dealing with teams, their aspirations, motivating them to do well, knowing when to turn the pressure on and when to withdraw are all finer aspects of leading which take people time to learn. Unfortunately, the pressures of day-to-day business mean that managers have to hit the ground running and they do not have the luxury to ease into the role. This means in many instances, they may not get to know their team members well. This problem further gets compounded when one is managing teams across various geographies.
4. Ability to balance both sides: Many a manager has confided in me about this dilemma- If he is too friendly with his staff, he risks being seen as 'one of them' and branded soft by the senior management. If he cozies up to his bosses and senior management, he risks being branded a 'chamcha' by his staff. Ability to walk the fine line and keep both sides happy is a challenge.
5. Specific challenges faced by women managers: Many women have today assumed middle management roles, such as branch managers at leading banks, and have excelled in these roles. However, these roles nowadays also demand socialising post office hours - whether it is having a drink with the team or indulging in sports activities over the weekend. Many good women managers end up having guilt feelings as they are not able to participate in such activities.
How can organisations help?
As we have seen, it is in the interest of the organisation to build a strong middle management cadre. Companies can help these managers in their transition by:
a. Providing coaching and mentoring: Rather than being thrown to the wolves, managers need to be briefed about the expectations and soft skills needed to succeed in their roles. While most organisations have regular training programs for skills updation, a good coach should be employed to spend time with these employees to counsel and prepare them for the softer aspects of the new role. Successful organisations often have a mentorship program where a group of middle managers are tied to a person from the senior management who would regularly 'check-in' with them. I know of one organisation which had put mentorship in the KRA/ KPI of senior leaders so that it was taken seriously.
2. Ensuring consultative approach particularly in decisions that impact managers or their teams: As a senior leader, I once had the unpleasant task of drawing up lists to cut staff from our retail branches across the country. The exercise was largely to be done on the drawing board at the company headquarters (HQ) in consultation with HR and branch managers were not to be consulted! Imagine, you are sitting in some far flung corner of the country and you don't even know that the fate of some of your team members is being decided back in the company HQ. Needless to say, it is important that middle management should be consulted when their team members are being rewarded or reprimanded or transferred.
3. Familiarising managers with regulatory implications: In attainment of day-to-day goals, managers can often lose sight of the big picture. This can have serious compliance and regulatory implications which can do permanent damage to the brand of the organisation. We all know about the controversy created some time back with some bankers allegedly crossing the line while opening new accounts. We are often told that good compliance is good business -this is not a cliché but a reality in current times of intense scrutiny.
4. Regular Communication: In survey after survey, managers have quoted a lack of sense of purpose as one of the topmost reasons for quitting (a bad boss is almost always reason no. 1). While money and status (read job title or a person's relative position in the hierarchy) will always be important, knowing that one's efforts count and the organisation relies on you during good as well as bad times gives a completely different high. In my experience, most good organisations had regular forums for exchange of communication. The importance of town halls, lunch with the senior management, annual days, etc. cannot be overemphasized. The recent difficult times make regular communication even more important.
How can managers help themselves?
Mid-level managers can help their cause too in tackling the challenges that they face.
1. Know that turnaround time is short. In today's day and age, organizations cannot offer you the luxury of time to 'discover' yourself in the new role. Whether we like it or not, expectations start from day one.
2. Update yourself, read regularly. If you are at a social do and find yourself with the CEO of your organisation, what would you say in those two minutes? What is your ability for 'small talk' - global events, politics, sports, whatever….?
3. Prepare for the next role. Start working from day one on what it would take for you to climb up one more rung in the organisation ladder. Ask yourself constantly: "If I was being interviewed for promotion to the senior management role what differentiated strategies am I going to talk about? What does my senior management value and what would they like to hear in the interview? What insights do I have into what competition is doing?" Keep a diary and keep making notes, your chance could come tomorrow.
4. Show willingness to make tough decisions. Nobody likes to lay off people or read out the riot act but if the situation demands so, be prepared to take it on rather than shirk. Senior management is always watching your actions, particularly in tough situations to see how you respond.
5. Lastly, understand politics. There is politics everywhere. You don't have to play it to succeed but you should be able to read situations and prepare your responses accordingly.
Typically, persons in middle management would have another 20 years of corporate career ahead of them. It is important for them to understand and enjoy the game, if they are going to play it for so long.
(Suresh Rajagopal, with over 25 years in senior management and leadership roles, is the co-founder and CEO of Mumbai-based Consumerge Wealth Managers that specializes in wealth management, HR consultancy and Coaching)