The Disappearing Middle Management

Written by Tom Conroy, Managing Director of GattiHR Industrial

If you’ve ever been on a ship, you know the captain actually doesn’t steer the ship. You know there’s a helmsman or a more junior officer that’s actually doing this part. So, like many idioms in the English language, “Captain of the ship / Captain steering the ship” is not necessarily referring to hands-on leadership like it’s meant to. Of course, it’s still the Captain’s/Pilot’s responsibility to make sure that ship doesn’t goes sideways in the Suez Canal and then have his/her ship impounded for $900M dollars – but that’s beside the point.

It’s middle management that actually steers the “ship” and the executive leader that points the organization where to go, with middle management having an influence on the team members closest to the product or service.

After reading a recent article about the four innovations that are going to affect the manufacturing industry, I am more steadfast in my belief that organizations are missing an opportunity while they are eliminating that middle management position. Each innovation, new technology or human capital problem came down to how effective is an organization’s middle management. No matter how strong the senior executive team or the C-suite is in strategy and higher-level thinking with creativity and innovation, the execution of that vision rests on middle management and associate/execution teams. This may be where I would say, “No S***, Sherlock (aka Tom) – thanks for pointing out the obvious!”

I think the more important point is: over the recent years, businesses have been able to flatten their structure to become more agile and reactive to their environment by creating more “player/coach” roles — The profile that is neither a manager nor executor but a hybrid. The challenge is how do you then build strategic, managerial, business-level skillsets when everyone is executing in the forest but can’t see the trees? Eventually, some of these organizations are going to be filled with swiss army knives, not scalpels, when strategic surgery is required.

As my team is working on 5 player/coach “middle-management” searches at the moment of writing this, I ask myself (and to some clients) how effective their organizations are in building their talent, career path creation for retention and not end up with a glaring middle-management skills gap.

It’s middle management that must understand both the operator’s role and the strategy. There is often an even longer list of required skills and experiences at a middle management position, compared to a higher-level leadership role. While senior executives must have the skills to drive strategy, communicate clearly, and manage at a 30,000-foot view, the position doesn’t necessarily require specific industry or functional experience. Middle management rarely has that luxury.

Organizations also tend to monetarily value those roles at the “player” price and not at the “coach” price. It’s up to HR, Talent Acquisition or talent partners to explain that the hybrid candidate most likely already has the management responsibility role but wouldn’t mind still executing on a more frequent basis.

So as organizations flatten out to become more agile, organizations must establish effective learning and development functions to invest in middle-management skill sets. If done effectively, it’ll allow for continued agility, but also have a pipeline of engaged and empowered middle-management ready to take that senior position when the time comes.