The authors, until recently, were all partners at McKinsey & Co, based in various offices across the USA. Bill Schaninger was a senior partner at the company, until October 2023. He advises on strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, and talent. Bryan Hancock is the global leader of McKinsey’s talent work and sits on the board of their People Insights solution. Emily Field joined McKinsey in 2017 where she focuses on preparing leaders to manage the workforce of the future. All, unsurprisingly, base their work and advice on data-driven metrics.
Middle management is often seen as, if not a derogatory term then certainly not an aspirational one. They have also over the years attracted a number of epithets that cast middle-management in a poor light: the clay layer, the innovation graveyard and so on.
But the reality is that middle managers are the engine of most organizations – and tellingly, often the employees that senior executives are most fearful of losing. Frontline staff can be replaced reasonably easily and there are always plenty of folk looking to rise into the ranks of senior executives, but middle managers are frequently more valuable in terms of their organizational knowledge and memories; they keep the wheels turning when things go wrong, and they are of course the indispensable link that takes senior executive strategy and translates it into real activity on the ground. They make sure stuff gets done.
However, the stereotype persists. Middle managers are too often disregarded, under-resourced in terms of development and have to play a careful game between those they lead and those they report to.
Today’s reality is that organizations are much more dispersed, complex and forever evolving, and the need for capability in this middle level is more important than ever before.
Right from the start the authors’ recognize these attributes stating ‘that the smartest executives will do everything in their power to keep their best middle managers where they and reward them’ and then explaining that in many instances this is infact the correct approach, but it needs to be carefully managed.
Too often people are promoted out of roles they enjoy and excel at, into larger strategic and political roles, that they have neither real aptitude or wish to pursue, beyond the allure of a larger salary and the prestige of the next rung’s job title. This does the neither the organization nor the employee any favours. The clever manoeuvre is to expand the middle manager’s role, allowing it to incorporate more responsibility. ‘When managers shed their roles as administrators and bureaucrats and emerge as true people leaders, their positions become invaluable and invulnerable to displacement’.
The McKinsey data the authors base this upon shows that nearly 75% of middle manager time is spent on tasks other than managing their teams; 39% on bureaucracy, 28% on individual contributor work leaving less and less time to do their core task – managing people.
The solution is to change the conditions, and create a more attractive environment for middle managers to operate in. The book having described the problem goes on to set out their formula for enabling this to happen. The clue to what this is, lies in the title of the book – Power to the Middle. These are some of the key elements:
At the heart of this book is the simple proposition – one we see being promoted in many different guises from similarly experienced authors – of ‘share the power’. Organizations invest huge amounts of time and money in recruiting ‘the best’ candidates for roles, and then when they have worked successfully over a period of time, often do not expand those roles to increase in breadth with the experience and capability.
If we can delegate authority and responsibility more wisely and more widely, then it gives purpose and meaning to those who are gaining it – and it unburdens others having to carry those tasks. The authors highlight tales of CEOs of large organizations still signing-off on recruiting managers three levels below them. By giving away authority on these tasks, senior leaders build their teams strengths and create more space for themselves.
A more powerful middle is, as your personal trainer will tell you, about core strength and greater resilience – it works for organizations as well as the torso!
Title: Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work
Author/s Name/s: Bill Schaninger; Bryan Hancock; Emily Field
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
Publishing Date: July, 2023
Number of Pages: 256