Don’t Count Out the Middle Manager

Share By Tom Barkley

Let’s give some props to the middle manager.

Rarely glorified in a business world obsessed with getting lean and disruptive, mid-level executives are often overlooked as difference-makers for the bottom line. They may even be seen as standing in the way of the innovators they oversee.

But far from the office villains portrayed in Dilbert or “Office Space,” studies tell a different story about the role of the middle manager — the unsung hero.

The decision-makers that form the critical link between the company’s leaders and creators have an outsized impact on productivity, says Dan Enthoven, chief marketing officer at Enkata, which helps managers improve their teams’ performance.

”In many cases, companies don’t view middle mangers as tools for getting better productivity,” Enthoven told Real Business. In fact, managers have a big impact, with as much as a 35 percent difference in performance between teams led by strong versus weak management.

Many companies approach productivity as an issue of individual performance. However, Redwood City, Calif.-based Enkata has found in analyzing clients’ employees that high performers tend to fall under certain managers, and low performers under others.

“When we looked at things like employee engagement, errors or even what they’re doing all day, we found that the manager had a tremendous impact on what was going on,” said Enthoven.

Ethan Mollick, assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, went one step further to demonstrate the importance of managers — he determined that they have more impact on revenue than senior executives or designers in the video game industry.

Mollick found that producers accounted for more than 22 percent of the difference in revenue between games. The contribution of these middle managers far outweighed that of game designers, who accounted for just 7 percent of the variation in revenue.

“Because middle managers aren’t actually producing anything or making grand strategy, there tends to be an unfair de-emphasis on them,” said Mollick. But these aren’t empty suits — the best managers are very resourceful in nurturing and facilitating creativity, he says.

Management Types

Greg Pomerantz understands these misconceptions well, having worked as a manager at several major corporations, including Pepsi, ConAgra, and Bausch and Lomb. Now running his own consulting business near Minneapolis, Pomerantz says his marketing teams often found success improving a company’s competitiveness but didn’t always get the recognition.

“We had the ability to impact the strategic direction of our division, which was fun. But when it came to the entire corporation, we were a rounding error,” he said.

Still, Pomerantz acknowledges that not all managers are created equal. Not everyone has what it takes to succeed, including simple dedication to the job. “We used to joke, `Don’t stand by the door at 4:30, you’ll just get run over,” he said.

So even when companies that recognize and support their managers, there’s no guarantee they’ll get results. “You have to have a certain type of individual that is able to work up with the top executives, yet work down to have the respect of the individuals that work for them,” said Bryan Johnson, president of Real Life Assessments, a Minneapolis-based firm that provides companies with assessments of managers and other employees.

Recently retired as head of HR at Honeywell Aerospace’s nearby operations, Johnson also volunteers at the Minneapolis chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit made up of mostly retired executives who help entrepreneurs start or grow their own business. Not surprisingly, some of the clients that Johnson and Pomerantz assist are frustrated former managers from larger companies who decided to explore opportunities of their own.

Management 101

So how best to keep mid-level executives engaged and on board with efforts to motivate staff?

  • It starts with communication, says Johnson, noting that Honeywell did a good job of keeping managers in the loop.
  • Provide the necessary training and resources. “Often you have training for the end employees or productivity tools for the whole department, but it’s very rare that you see productivity tools for middle management,” said Enthoven.
  • Finally, a simple recognition not just of the individual manager, but also of middle manager as a respectable profession, could go a long way.  Create new roles within management, such as “chief project manager,” or allow them to apply their unique talents in new, challenging ways, suggests Mollick.

“There’s been a de-emphasis on middle managers, trying to figure out ways to get away from them,” said Mollick.

Pomerantz has witnessed the lack of awareness about a manager’s importance among some of the young entrepreneurs seeking his advice, with their focus on “keeping it lean.”

While he prefers the consultant lifestyle, Pomerantz said that “just being part of the team and trying to grow a business” is what he misses most about his management career.

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