Why Middle Managers Matter

Last Updated Apr 2, 2009 9:22 AM EDT

Whisper it quietly, but it is much easier being a top manager than it is being a middle manager. At the top, you have control over your own destiny, you have people doing things for you and you earn lots of money. Life in the middle is far harder:
  • Your responsibility exceeds your authority,
  • You are subject to the whims (sorry, insightful and brilliant initiatives) of top bosses,
  • You live in a world of ambiguity: shifting goals, resources and politics
  • You do not have control over your destiny
  • In a matrix, you have multiple bosses
Over the last 20 years, middle management has become far harder. Blame re-engineering.

In the world before re-engineering, middle managers tended to live in functional silos. They may have been dysfunctional functional silos, but they were comfortable: clear roles and clear responsibilities.

Re-engineering tipped the organisation on its side: processes became as important as functions. Suddenly, pressure increased dramatically on middle managers. For a start, there were fewer of them.

In many cases re-engineering turned out to be cost-cutting with a smile, where the smile was optional. Fewer managers found themselves having to work in a far more complicated world, balancing processes, functions, goals and an explosion of politics that went alongside the explosion of complexity which re-engineering causes. Re-engineering may streamline processes, but it hugely complicates the organisation's power structure.

We have been encouraged to build a world where the consumer can have anything, anytime, anywhere and anyhow. Consumer utopia has become a producer dystopia: managers have to respond by doing everything, all the time and anywhere. Even planes and trains are becoming little more than fast moving offices.

There are several strategies for dealing with this:

  • Stay a junior manager: you may have to work hard, but the stress will not be as much
  • Become a top boss: life is far easier. If you really mess up you can get a £703,000 annual pension, like "Sir" Fred Goodwin the abysmal former CEO of RBS.
  • Start your vegan farm, drop out, whatever.
The really radical option is to enjoy life in the middle. You are the glue that holds the organisation together. You are doing one of the most challenging jobs around: you have every right to feel pride in what you do.
  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership