Advice for middle managers (and for those who manage them) — Paul Osterman

MIT Sloan Prof. Paul Osterman

MIT Sloan Prof. Paul Osterman

From The Smart Manager (India)

When people talk about middle managers, certain characterizations inevitably come to mind: gray-suited corporate drones bitter about being relegated to the sidelines of corporate power; middling bosses who don’t particularly care for their subordinates; overlooked paper-pushers eager to clock out at the end of the day.

None of these depictions are flattering; none of them are accurate either. According to my latest research, which involved analyzing over thirty years’ worth of employment data and conducting many interviews with mid-level managers and senior leaders across dozens of companies, middle managers are central, indeed crucial, to an organization’s success. My research shows that middle managers are, for the most part, thoughtful, strategically-minded individuals who have a strong commitment to their jobs, are highly engaged with their colleagues, and gain real pleasure from their day-to-day work.

The past few years have been difficult for this particular band of employees. Middle managers today live and work in a paradoxical world. The global economic meltdown forced many companies to cut costs and reduce their workforces. The result left some middle managers with more authority and responsibility than they had in the past and others out of a job. As global competition increases and technology changes the ways in which companies do business, some middle managers have been given new opportunities to have a substantial role in shaping the future of their companies. Others, meanwhile, are nervous about their job security and feel disengaged from their employers.

Many middle managers feel adrift. During my research, the comment I heard over and over again from them was: “I’m puzzled about how to make my next move.” Career paths have been disrupted because organizations are flatter. The ladders up are broken.  The paths ahead are no longer clear and this brings into sharper relief the question of what it takes to succeed.

For middle managers wondering what to do next, here is my advice:

Hone your existing skills and develop new ones. Be aggressive in asking your company to fund broad-based training. Explore courses and conferences that will keep your skill set fresh and help you develop new areas of expertise. Look into free training options, as well, including webinars and online classes. Your goal is to make sure you’re continually learning new things and developing portable skills that you can take with you to your next job.

Acquire a network outside your company. Make a concerted effort to develop a robust professional world outside of your corporation. Join professional associations. Go to local networking events. Become an active member on career-focused social media groups. If, one day, you need to rely on that world (because you find yourself out of a job), it will be there for you.

Acquire a network inside your company. There’s a lot of research that shows dispersed networks pay off. Get to know people from all over your company and make connections where they are not obvious. Join the interoffice softball league. Start a book group that spans different business units. Go to lunch with different people each week. These networks will help you get your work done more efficiently and also help spark new ideas.

If you can’t climb up, move across. If your company can’t guarantee upward mobility, explore opportunities for lateral mobility. Horizontal job moves have two big advantages for employees. One, they offer a chance to develop a breadth of skills in an area where you may not have a lot of experience; and two, they provide new stimulating challenges. When hunting for a next move, look to see that the new job gives you contact with top management and new ways to contribute to the strategic goals of the enterprise.

Finally, I have two pieces of advice for senior leaders who manage middle managers:

Be clear. At a time when all employees are stretched more thinly, senior leaders need to be much more straightforward about the direction of the organization. Workers today have broader responsibilities than in the past and it is incumbent on senior leaders to articulate a vision for the company that helps middle managers prioritize their time and energy.

Be fair. Over the past few years, middle managers have seen many of their peers getting pink slips while senior leaders enrich themselves. This must change. Inequality is problematic because it breeds disloyalty. Senior leaders must make an effort to distribute resources equitably so that all employees feel fairly compensated. In short, senior leaders need to be less greedy. It will increase loyalty and commitment to the firm.

Article published in The Smart Manager, Sept.-Oct., 2013 (subscription required)

Paul Osterman is the NTU Professor of Human Resources and Management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. He is the author of nine books including The Truth About Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter (Harvard Business School Press).

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