The end or the revival of the middle manager?

“New technology itself has become the great general manager,” writes Lynda Gratton in a column for Harvard Business Review (Jan.-Feb. 2011), titled ‘The end of the middle manager’. “Moreover, skilled teams are increasingly self-managed…. There is little competitive advantage left in being a jack-of-all-trades when your main competitor might be Wikipedia.” Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School and author of influential management books. She’s leading an international research consortium on the ‘future of work’.

Her temporary conclusions fit wonderfully with the newnormal world of Peter Hinssen and can inspire HR people thinking about the organisation of tomorrow. “Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect.” Sounds familiar?

What’s the added value of middle managers in big companies crushed by systems and procedures? Her answer is clear: successful, future proof middle managers will be connected and will have valuable expertise. They will have a ‘personal signature’, be part of virtual ‘guilds’ and networks and will reinvent themselves regularly. In leadership terms we could call this the quest for “authenticity” and “transparency”. The old school middle manager is an endangered species.

Boston Consulting Group makes more or less the same analysis but their conclusion is opposite. They want to revive middle management and empower this neglected but critical group. The results of their engagement survey in 2010 shows that engagement declined overall during the financial crisis. The decline was most dramatic among middle managers. Middle management has become far more dissatisfied about performance management, the recognition of their role and the overall people skills and leadership behaviors. Nevertheless, BCG argues, “the middle matters”. They are the ones that have to get strategy work and deliver results.

BCG proposes a new DEAL: Delayer the organisation, Empower managers to act, Accelerate their leadership skills and Leverage the power of middle managers. Middle management got stuck and needs more freedom and accountability to become more engaged and support and reward to take that freedom and power. Finding the right balance between discipline and personal freedom is key. This is an important challenge for HR.

Is middle management as we know it becoming obsolete? Or does it need a revival? It doesn’t matter. The message is the same.  “More personal leadership” is needed and “less middle management”. It’s up to all of us and especially the organisation designers and developers to take the lead in this evolution.

Koen Marichal, February 9, 2011.

* http://www.wfpma.com/projects/PDFS/MiddleManagersJul10WhitePaper.pdf

About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
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