Middle Managers – where’d they all go?

In today’s business climate, where rapid change, technological breakthroughs and improvements define the quest for high performance, middle-managers are making a comeback —a real renaissance of sorts.

But the more appropriate reaction requires a candid look at why we thought eliminating their roles was a brilliant idea in the first place. Mostly a courtesy of the cost-cutting wizards from McKinsey, Bain, Alavarez, et al., but that’s for another article.

Doing Less with Less

The unfortunate truth is, we’ve been actively squeezing middle management out of the workforce now for a couple of decades at least, and the toll has been ugly. In many cases, we were blindly thinking we were doing “more with less.”

It turned out, of course, that simply was not the case; we’re just doing less with less. In fact, more senior leaders today are simply doing what middle managers used to do. Some of them are doing it all the time.

No elimination of the role, just a headcount reduction and realignment of responsibilities.

But employees today are less developed than ever, less engaged than ever, and less satisfied than ever.

Doing less with less is not a strategy worth repeating and certainly not the most efficient or effective way to stay ahead of the curve. In short, it’s creating single points of failure in myriad organizations.

A Sign of The Times

Kicking along our memory lane… along came the financial meltdowns in 2008-2009, and the “all-hands-on-deck” mentality really worked to camouflage the mid-management shortfall. Everyone was micro-managing, so the lack of mid-management was mostly indiscernible.

Once some normalcy began returning, no one felt that adding now-deemed-superfluous headcount (see “wizards” above) was a good idea, so we kept those mid-managers from returning. Dumb idea. Short-sided and misguided.

Fast forward a decade or so, and along comes the apocalypse… the Covid-19 Pandemic. Again, it’s all-hands on deck. CEOs are having seemingly empathetic zoom calls with all employees; townhall meetings are rampant; everyone was committed to being as cooperative and collaborative as possible, since “we were all in it together.”

In such a collectively social environment, surely we don’t need a bunch of interlopers between individual contributors and the C-suite…!?

We’d continue along in our misguided bliss.

It’s today; we’ve come face-to-face with the now-normal – operational pressures, sketchy economy, political idiots on all sides… coupled with remote vs. office, quiet quitting, inflationary wages, and (my favorite) layoffs announced via social media (are you kidding me?)/

We’ve come to realize that no one is actually accountable for day-to-day leadership, management and watching the store.

Lots of people want to be responsible thousands of employees, $millions in capital, and 5-year strategic initiatives. No one, it seems, is around to make sure that next Wednesday goes without a hitch. That the parking lot lines get painted and the break room refrigerator is replaced.

To say nothing of people getting developed, being heard, and appropriately hired, onboarded, trained, and recognized.

Here’s the rub: we’ve discovered (like it was some big, freakin’ surprise), that senior leadership is incapable—from a bandwidth perspective—of managing day-to-day tactical efforts while dedicating brain-time to strategy and longer-term, organization-wide thinking.

The workload is simply too much, the machine is moving too fast, and the priorities are not working.

Supervision and Management-Still Key to Organizational Success

Leadership is essential for organizational success, of course, but so are supervision and management.

After all, someone has to deal with daily performance challenges, operational issues and changes in tactical direction. And the people. For Pete’s sake, don’t forget the people.

These are not always intuitive leadership roles, but those of experienced managers.

“Flattened organizations” sounded so good, so trendy. As did “leadership more in touch with the people.”

As the present day scenario teaches us, however, there’s a problem with using fads and cutesie catch-phrases to run a railroad. Reality slams you in the face.

All of that, and I’m not even going to address the incredible dearth of viable succession depth (again, another article).

And as we pick ourselves up off the ground and dust ourselves off, we are left with only one request— “Middle Managers, please come back, we need you.”

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