Time to Stand Up for Middle Managers

My Financial Times column 10/11/11

The death of the middle manager is one of those headlines like falling house prices or rising university tuition that seem purpose-built to wreak mental havoc on swaths of the professional middle class. What other curses do the economic gods have in mind?

These thoughts were prompted by a recent column in the Harvard Business Review titled “The End of the Middle Manager” by Lynda Gratton, a professor at London Business School. Prof Gratton argues that new technology means the end for the middle manager as we know it. There is no longer any need for the manager filling the gap between senior executives and the people who do the work or, in Prof Gratton’s definition, those with the “shallow general skills that kept things running smoothly rather than created and innovated”.

There appears to be plenty of support for Prof Gratton’s view. Middle managers have become the whipping boys of the corporate world. While senior executives have taken advantage of the rise in financial leverage to reward themselves with ever larger compensation plans, middle managers have seen their salaries stagnate.

Middle management is no longer seen as a route to the top. They can toil away for years hoping for a promotion, only to see the top jobs filled by ex-consultants or fresh-faced MBAs. There is the all-consuming work itself, worsened by the 24-hour global working day, which corrodes personal lives. And then there is Generation Y, who consider middle managers losers and have no truck with 20th-century anachronisms such as meetings and weekly reports.

Prof Gratton says technology is now the general manager. “It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports and presentations,” she writes. Meanwhile, the innovators in companies no longer need managers. They can self-manage and report to the executives at the top.

At first sight, it is hard to argue with all this. But there is something obnoxious about the dehumanising idea that companies will soon be made up of self-managing creative teams and executives, with nothing in between.

Steven Spear, a senior lecturer at MIT and author of The High Velocity Edge, says the difficulty with Prof Gratton’s argument is that it is based on an outdated view of middle management. It is the view articulated by Alfred Chandler in The Visible Hand, the classic account of the growth of US corporations from the 19th to 20th centuries.

According to Chandler, the middle manager fulfilled two roles: he conveyed information back and forth between the executives and the workers on the line; and he drove functional efficiencies, in the system designed by the executives – for example, better managed sales forces, lower pricing and better channels of distribution.

Of course, Prof Spear says, all of these traditional managerial roles have been under siege for years from technology, from systems that are cheaper and more efficient than humans.

What Prof Gratton fails to acknowledge is how companies’ needs have changed. While they may no longer need middle managers who meet Chandler’s definition, they do need middle managers who can manage the complexity of modern corporations.

Prof Spear has spent a lot of time at companies such as Toyota, Alcoa and Intel, as well as studying the healthcare industry, and he has found repeatedly that middle managers are as vital as ever but in a different way. Technology is yet to give the chief executives of these companies a clear view from top to bottom of their operations. They still depend on managers to tell them what is going on. As Prof Spear describes them, these must be “agile managers capable of dynamic problem solving and solving local problems locally”.

Abundant evidence of this need was provided during the financial crisis when it became clear that many bank bosses had no idea of the risks being taken inside their own organisations.

Prof Spear offers two persuasive analogies with armies and the human body. For all the sophistication of modern warfare, armies still need non-commissioned officers and officers to provide the link between generals and privates.

The human body also has layer after layer of middle management, across cells, tissue and organs, leading up to the brain. Remove any of those layers and ask the brain to talk directly to cells and you have something quite different and less efficient.

Prof Spear’s final, resounding point is that, given how fast business changes these days, human beings remain the most adaptable management tools any executive could want. They can learn, lead, change, haggle, calculate, persuade, emote and inspire. Middle managers will survive because they give a great company its pulse.



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