The post-COVID-19 landscape feels leaner for some companies, and with good reason: The need to quickly execute on shifting goals caused many executives to cut out complexity. “We’ve accomplished more in eight weeks than the past eight months,” some executives have said. “We just got on with it, shutting down endless debates.”
In truth, leadership simply cut middle management out of the decision-making process.
While it might be tempting to embrace leaner structure for the sake of quick execution, Bryan Hancock, partner at McKinsey & Company, urges executives against it. “We might need to pump the brakes on that a bit and consider the nuance of what middle managers do most productively in regular times,” he says.
A study by Gallup echoes this sentiment. Analyzing a decade worth of data and insights, the researchers found that company productivity hinged largely upon managers.
Middle management plays a crucial role in your company’s operations. By engaging managers as strategic partners, you not only invest in them professionally but also tap into layers of knowledge, expertise, and insight that can drive your company forward.
1. Middle management better understands department and team needs.
Executive leadership often lacks the context needed to make specific decisions. It’s not because they choose to, but because it’s nearly impossible for them to supervise and understand the daily tasks of every employee in their company.
Managers, on the other hand, know their teams’ situations and needs intimately.
The power of middle management to enable companies to thrive and grow should come as no surprise for global executives. Middle management acts as the important link between the C-suite’s goals and strategies and the employees that execute them.
Amy Lui Abel and J. Keith Dunbar, Managing Director and Principal Research Fellow, respectively @ The Conference Board
Researchers at Stanford University found that companies able to successfully navigate large-scale change (32%) did so due to the involvement of their middle managers. A more recent study found that middle managers played a strategic role in responding to small bumps in the company’s overall road to progress. Their ability to design, collaborate on, and execute a plan at the micro-level helped stabilize the larger organization.
To empower middle management as strategic partners, companies can equip their managers with tools that allow them to put their knowledge and understanding of their team into action.
In ChartHop, managers can access important data to ensure their headcount plans are aligned to company budget and overall hiring goals.
Engaging middle management in headcount planning is an excellent example. Managers are also more familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their team than senior leadership. Knowing what goals the company has for an upcoming year, managers can assess their current team and create a staffing plan that includes roles and skills the team will need to hire for in order to help drive those company goals.
If a company has a goal to onboard a significant number of customers in Q2, for example, managers of the implementation and support teams can create a headcount plan ahead of that goal. This ensures they’ve not only brought on the appropriate number of employees but also have given enough lead time to ensure they’re trained and ready to assist customers.
2. Managers drive employee engagement and productivity.
Managers keep their teams engaged and excited about projects that lie ahead. They’re also responsible for making sure those projects stay on time and, often, on budget.
According to Harvard Business Review, companies with strong management rank better for “productivity, profitability, growth, and longevity.”
Good managers see benefits to both employee and company-wide growth.(Source)
Managers can push company growth while fostering a productive work environment by providing their team a clear direction and strategy. This ensures that all members are on the same page and know what’s expected of them and how, as a team, they’ll achieve their goal.
Investing in team members’ professional growth and development ensures that employees get the training they need to be productive. When managers focus efforts on ways to help employees level up, they simultaneously create a culture in which employees are engaged and equally invested in their improvement.
But there’s opportunity to level up middle management as well. “If firms have sound fundamental management practices, they can build on them, developing more-sophisticated capabilities—such as data analytics, evidence-based decision making, and cross-functional communication,” write Raffaella Sadun, Nicholas Bloom, and John Van Reenen, professors at Harvard Business School, Stanford University, and MIT, respectively.
If firms have sound fundamental management practices, they can build on them, developing more-sophisticated capabilities—such as data analytics, evidence-based decision making, and cross-functional communication.
Raffaella Sadun, Nicholas Bloom, and John Van Reenen, Professors @ Harvard Business School, Stanford University, and MIT, respectively.
Having the right tools in place can help managers ensure that they’re investing in their employees in meaningful ways. For example, people analytics share employee engagement scores, promotion rates, and turnover. Knowing these metrics can help manages identify which areas of the work experience need improvement and then strategize solutions.
People analytics can show performance reviews over time, allowing managers to create employee growth plans and identify the skills and experience the employee needs to get there.
3. Managers drive culture and necessary change.
Managers influence employees’ daily experiences. This means managers are in a unique position to support important company initiatives—or sabotage and undermine them.
Diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives are perfect examples. For these initiatives to gain the momentum needed to realize real impact, buy-in across all levels of a company is necessary—especially with managers.
Consider every daily touchpoint a manager has with their team. In meetings, they can be an asset or a roadblock in ensuring each member of their team has a chance to speak. In hiring and promotions, they can be mindful of potential biases or continue to let them influence their decisions.
Most importantly, they can hold their employees accountable for their behavior or continue to let problematic behavior occur.
Research shows that employees support change initiated by middle management and executed by top-level leadership. This suggests the potential for increased engagement when middle management and executive leadership collaborate on the planning and implementation of initiatives.
Middle managers interface with a majority of employees on a daily basis. Their input and buy-in is vital for successful DEI initiatives.(Source)
Training can help middle management get there.
While middle management influences roughly 80% of their workforce, these managers often only receive 20-30% of their company’s training focus. Yet training is essential to middle management investment and engagement.
Think back to our example of diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives. Providing managers with customized training can help them better understand their role in supporting these initiatives, equip them with practices they can take to their teams, and give them frameworks for important conversations with their employees. It’s also an opportunity for leadership to clearly communicate expectations for middle management performance and set corresponding goals.
4. Managers help their teams navigate crises.
When the unexpected strikes, employees look to managers for answers and guidance. We saw this most recently with the impact of COVID-19, but it can also occur during an economic crisis, with merger and acquisition (M&A) announcements, or with wide-scale leadership change.
Managers help manage these experiences for employees, playing a key role in helping them navigate and survive it. Take COVID-19: Managers continue to support employees juggling the demands of shared work-from-home households, balancing work with caretaking responsibilities and increased stress and anxiety.
Since managers understand what is going on with their employees, they make perfect partners in contingency and scenario planning. Managers can use this opportunity to consider and communicate the needs of their team unit and employees as the company plans potential future-state scenarios.
In ChartHop, managers can collaborate with leadership to create headcount plans for potential business scenarios.
Key personnel exits, for example, may require that leadership shift employees and resources between teams. Managers can visualize what skills they have and what skills they’ll be in need of and create a well-informed plan for how their team will look (and function) post-exit.
Leadership should also consider collaborating with middle management on communication plans. Managers know the questions employees have and what their concerns are and can help leadership determine the best approach when delivering information, good or bad.
Engaging managers in contingency planning and related communication can also go a long way in securing their buy-in. By involving managers from the beginning, you can increase their ownership of each plan and their alignment with company-wide messaging.
Take the “middle” out of middle management
Being in middle management isn’t easy. While acting as the bridge between employees and executive leadership is crucial, the constant pressure of switching between the role of a supervisor and the role of a subordinate can take its toll.
By engaging managers as business partners, companies can help managers move beyond this in-between state to a strategic role vital to the company’s success.
Ready to equip your managers with tools that can help them think strategically from day one? Request your customized ChartHop demo today!