Though they are often highly adaptable, middle managers can be the most overlooked element of any company. For Adam Kingl, a little more empathy for the 'squeezed' middle wouldn't go amiss.
My recent book, Next Generation Leadership, explores how to engage and better manage Generation Y, the most junior segment of the workforce. In researching generational theory for the book, my sympathy for my own generation, X, grew exponentially. Gen X is crammed between two huge generations, the Baby Boomers and Gen Y, unable to enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of the Boomers and at the same time managing the most difficult group that the workforce has seen in the Ys. Gen X is currently our sandwich generation and is a perfect metaphor for middle management – pushed from above and pulled from below, unthanked, unloved and overworked. Yet we all acknowledge that our middle managers make the gears turn, hold the culture and need to pivot and have to adapt faster than anyone else in the company.
If our organisations depend upon middle managers, what paradigms about this critical segment might we need to revise?
'Uncrunch' the middle layer
First, I firmly believe we must challenge the assumption that the executive suite decides on new or revised products or services, and middle managers are responsible for executing those decisions. One of the greatest difficulties implicit in a hierarchical organisational architecture is that the more we are promoted, the less we talk to actual customers! Yet in too many companies it is the enterprise leader who decides the customer offer, and that leader’s concept of what the market may want could be years or even decades out of date. Instead, perhaps the external-facing employees and their managers should be incentivised to develop new and adapted products and services and submit the evolved prototypes and business plans to executives for sign-off.
Second, we must offer development to the middle management layer for what they require now, and not only what skills they need at the next level. In my many years of working in executive education, I find that too often organisational learning is around the skills that one will need at the next level, yet I observe so many capabilities that the employee needs right now! If we consider the areas that will help to ‘uncrunch’ the squeezed middle layer, they would be themes that would free capacity for expanded exploration and empowerment. These include customer-centric innovation, trends we perceive in the market and the consequences of those trends; experimenting and prototyping in order for the organisation to enjoy a constant pipeline of adaptations and creative outputs; articulating one’s purpose in work and enabling one’s team to do the same – this last theme is perhaps the most critical in a world that is wracked with disappointment about the role of business in society.
In these manners, learning initiatives are directed toward including the customer voice, enhancing the agility of the organization, focusing intent, and engaging and retaining the largest segment of the workforce. A little dose of extra empathy for the squeezed middle manager wouldn’t go amiss either. Perhaps my favourite phrase that I’ve ever heard from a colleage is ‘How can I help?’
Adam Kingl, is the author of Next Generation Leadership and is a keynote speaker, educator and advisor. Adam was previously the Regional Managing Director, Europe, for Duke Corporate Education – Duke University, and the Executive Director of Thought Leadership and Learning Solutions at London Business School. He is a writer, keynote speaker, educator and advisor.
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