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A Zombie or A Phoenix – the emerging need for “Middle Management!”

For a decade or more organisations have been delayering – reducing the headcount particularly amongst what was referred to, sometimes disparagingly, as middle management. The goal, and what was often delivered, was to unclutter the hierarchy and build a stronger level of management at team level. But have we gone too far? Do we need some middle management back, if not in terms of new positions, perhaps in terms of a broadening of the “standard” management role? Has Middle Management, which once could be characterised as the Zombie of organisational life, now become the Phoenix leading to new levels of performance?

The emerging challenges of leading and managing in organisations is putting stress on this team-centric view of management. Increasingly management attention needs to move beyond focusing on the well-defined area of the team to include the spaces in between teams. There is a growing need to foster greater collaboration across business functions and groups, to create a community of shared experience and best practice. This is driven by a number of factors:

  • Complexity of strategic execution – it is impossible to specify all impacts and aspects of change in advance
  • Need for responsiveness – customers and opportunities move faster than strategic plans, processes and competency frameworks; solutions nearly always involve several stakeholders
  • Great business insights are discovered at the sharp edge of the organisation – those who manage at the frontline need to be able to respond creatively and quickly to these insights and mobilise an organisational response.
  • Balancing the drive - for flexibility and entrepreneurship with risk management and compliance

 Leading and managing in the grey areas

 Responding to these challenges requires managers to show: 

  • A willingness to step into the grey areas where responsibilities and roles are unclear
  • The confidence to seek to influence outside of a particular team or group
  • A proactive desire and capability to collaborate with others, empowering them to accelerate positive change. 

This will require significant management time operating outside of the boundaries of specific team requirements and a willingness to let go or lessen the day-to-day direction of a team. Instead, there needs to be willingness to invest in connecting and collaborating with the rest of the organisation, as well as with their peers. It also requires taking the sometimes personal risk of seeking to shape and influence a broader organisational response to change; highlighting the need for a robust company structure that will improve communication across the whole organisation.

And this is where, in the past, the best of middle managers would make a great contribution; creating a strong sense of community and collaboration between key influencers and decision makers. Mixing metaphors they were the glue that held an organisation together and the oil that allowed things to move

The emerging response to the above challenges might not be to introduce a new layer of “middle management” but to consciously and deliberately promote a robust culture and structure that reflects the best of this. 

Developing new middle management - How might an organisation go about establishing this?  

Paradoxically it may be first in refocusing on some developmental basics: A leader who can’t: 

  • manage performance;
  • coach and develop;
  • communicate effectively what the organisation is trying to achieve;
  • and provide consistent role modelling of key values and behaviours; 

… is very unlikely to establish the necessary self-sustaining qualities in their team. In these circumstances it would be hard to see how a manager would gain the time and the confidence to shape, connect and operate in the ‘grey areas of ambiguity’ between teams, plans and processes. 

There will also be the need to build in-depth cross-organisation networks in which a core value is collaboration.  Organisations need to enable, structurally and culturally, this community to self-organise and take decisions within understood parameters.  The result will be an organisation which can liberate its talent, respond quickly to the unexpected; implement strategic change effectively; mobilise around customer needs and drive innovation. 

The Advance Programme from Apter

The Advance Programme from Apter Development LLP is a modular programme aimed at developing a manager’s ability to lead teams that sustain performance. Advance also develops the shaping and connecting skills that allows managers to link across boundaries and divisions to enable effective collaboration. Its unique combination of rehearsal, experimentation and feedback provides for sustainable changes in leadership and management performance.    

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