There's an old saying in the Restaurant Industry that the most important person in the business isn't the chef, or the line cooks, or the servers — it's the dishwasher. It's because everything stops without having dishes. Even though it's considered a low-level position requiring minimal skills, it's incredibly hard. You get mass amounts of dishes during the lunch and dinner rush, and if they're not clean, new meals don't get plated and slows everything down. It's incredibly hot, disgusting, far from a fully automated process, and often the lowest paid.
In manufacturing, you might say this would be your welders or CNC operators. There's no question these roles are mission critical (i.e. no product, no sale), but manufacturing moves much slower than a restaurant. You can outsource the production of components, but you can't outsource dishwashing. The manufacturing equivalent to the dishwasher is middle management, for without solid middle management, the organization ceases to function.
Virtually no one aspires to be a middle manager. No one brags to their friends that they are a middle manager. A good one you can't live without, and a poor one becomes an anchor. There have been many changes in the definition of middle management, and many companies have started to change the titles of middle managers from "manager" to "director" or even "vice president", to make it more appealing, but the role hasn't changed. Typical organizational architectures consist of:
- Front Line Manager – A supervisor responsible for directing the day-to-day activities of operative employees
- Middle Manager – Often department heads, which supervise front line managers, implement strategy, solve systemic problems, and serve as a feedback loop to top line managers
- Top Line Manager – Responsible for making decisions about the direction of the organization and establishing policies that effect all organizational members
Smaller companies merge the roles of the front line managers and the middle managers, and for good reason — they don't have the infrastructure or the cash flow to support two separate roles. But merging these roles requires much broader skill sets. Data analytics, strategic interpretation, project management, leadership, decision making, delegation and technical acumen, just to name a few.
Many organizations have taken their best front line managers and elevated them to a middle management position, assuming that their prior performance indicates their future success. The problem is many of these people haven't been equipped with all the skills necessary for the new role. Those that take the role frequently get ousted for underperformance, or become the scapegoat when issues arise. Top line managers then start to feel the effects of these skill set gaps through a variety of outcomes:
- Lack of effective organizational change implementation and management
- Lack of effective translation of strategy into action
- Lack of foresight, continuous improvement, and proactive problem solving
The bottom line is neither great leadership nor brilliant strategy matters without operational excellence.
The problem isn't that there aren't great, experienced people to fill these roles, it's that they are under-equipped to do the job effectively. Those that have little or no access to training, much less being able to effectively identify their skill gaps, will have minimal chance of success and helping achieve the organization's growth and operational efficiency goals.
Middle managers must be effective in 4 core areas to be able to support day-to-day management simultaneously with implementing strategic change:
1) Delegation – Under pressure to produce, rookies just do it themselves. This translates into long hours, complaints about workload, hesitation to take on new responsibilities, and a demoralized team. Effective delegation and employee empowerment skills are essential for long-term organizational growth and acceptance of change.
2) Getting Support from Top Management – Afraid to look weak, rookie middle managers don't ask for help. They view themselves as servants, not partners, of their bosses. They wait for the boss to call meetings, fly under the radar, and hide mistakes. A sure recipe for underperformance and ineffective strategic implementation.
3) Focusing on the Big Picture – Fighting fires feels more productive than thinking about why they occur and solving that problem. Under-equipped middle managers are always working in the trenches, don't challenge their teams, and focus on activities instead of goals. Not understanding how to translate big picture goals into sustainable initiatives will ensure the lack of continuous improvement and proactive problem solving.
4) Having Business Acumen – Since middle managers often are promoted from within, they harbor excellent tactical skills, but often don't have soft skills and business mindset to bridge the gap between top brass and the front line. Rookie middle managers often have never experienced dealing with managing financials, developing a business case, analyzing data, creating a vision, or justifying a capital investment. Lacking the knowledge and experience on how the business operates, makes money, and loses money is a major impediment to gaining new insights and developing innovative solutions to systemic organizational problems.
Examine your middle management team and roles in your organization, as they are the ones that ensure your strategic vision becomes reality. If they aren't equipped to do the job, provide them with resources, such as training, mentors, or extended schooling — or find a role better suited for them. Because if middle management can't effectively translate and implement your strategy throughout the organization, you'll be stuck with a great plan on paper that never sees the light of day.
Andrea Olson is founder of marketing and communications strategic consulting firm Prag'madik.