Want Better Middle Managers? Then Redefine What It is to Be a Good One

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In her recent Wall Street Journal article, Rachel Feintzeig quotes an AT&T executive on the importance of middle managers.

“Who runs this company?” the executive asks. “We do, right here,” is his answer.

He’s exactly right. But when Stephen Harding and I wrote our book on the importance of middle managers — Manager Redefined: the Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization — we went farther. We said that managers are centers of insight and influence, underappreciated in many organizations, but endowed nonetheless with the potential to make dramatic contributions to enterprise success.

In most organizations, this potential remains untapped.

The problem with middle managers

Why? The simple truth is that many organizations have created middle-manager jobs that just can’t be done well. The result is systemic manager frustration.

Data from Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study indicate that, worldwide, only 44 percent of managers describe themselves as highly engaged, compared with 59 percent of the executives to whom they report. The problems begin when companies promote their most technically expert contributors into manager roles. They believe (wrongly in most cases) that the most skilled expert will prove to be the best leader of other technical performers.

Because the new manager is a top producer, she finds herself acting as a player-coach, torn between leading and performing the same tasks done by those she leads. Also, because many organizations strive to become ever flatter, the new manager — already expected both to make widgets and to lead widget-makers — often takes on more employees to supervise.

The result is a manager who has neither the time nor the skill to create the productive workplace that employees demand. Little wonder managers say they are disengaged.

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How to make them more successful

What can organizations do to enhance manager morale and, more fundamentally, make them more successful?

The answer is simple but difficult: Take the job apart and rebuild it. Identify what elements of the role make a real difference to corporate strategy and emphasize those. Revisit the competency model and refine what it really takes to be a good manager.

Rather than shifting administrative burdens from HR to managers, do the reverse — provide them with the support they need to engage their employees and ensure high productivity, and let HR worry about administration.

Certainly train them more and better, but first make sure that hiring and promotion processes put the right people into manager jobs that are structured to focus on what matters to the organization.

Thomas O. Davenport is a senior consultant with Towers Watson , a global human resources consulting firm, based in San Francisco. Tom concentrates chiefly on helping clients improve the people-focused elements of business strategy implementation. He's also the author of two books: "Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization," and "Human Capital: What It Is and Why People Invest It." Contact him at tom.davenport@towerswatson.com.

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