Why Middle Managers Are Crucial Right Now

Why Middle Managers Are Crucial Right Now

With sagging employee engagement in many workplaces, effective middle managers are crucial to inspiring workers and helping them achieve company goals.

“Why You Hate Work” was the startling headline on a New York Times commentary in May that has spurred debate about what businesses should do to boost employee engagement.

Middle managers play pivotal roles. They lead front-line employees charged with performing important work that can help their companies reach their overarching goals. Yet Tony Schwartz, a business consultant, and Christine Porath, a Georgetown University business professor, argue in the Times piece that many workplaces are broken, and middle managers face huge barriers to doing their jobs well.

Of the latter, the pair write: “You’re probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don’t feel much appreciated while you’re there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished amid all the distractions, and you don’t believe that what you’re doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you’re pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.”

They reached their conclusions after working with the Harvard Business Review to survey more than 12,000 employees, primarily white-collar workers, across a range of industries. They also surveyed employees at two companies where Schwartz has done consulting work—a manufacturing company with about 6,000 employees and a financial services firm with about 2,500 workers.

The patterns that Schwartz and Porath found mirror the research data of Gallup, which revealed last fall that only 30 percent of American workers are “engaged” in their jobs. Gallup defines engaged workers as those “psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.”

On the flip side, Gallup says workers who are “not engaged” are those who “lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes.” Meanwhile, those who fall into the “actively disengaged” category are “unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers.”

Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, notes the powerful role of middle managers in helping employees feel good about their jobs and enabling them to align their work with their company missions.

“Hiring and developing great managers, and building up and leveraging the strengths of every employee are the two keys to doubling employee engagement,” Clifton writes in a report interpreting the Gallup results. “How employees feel about their jobs starts and ends with their direct supervisor. If employees feel, among other things, that their supervisor takes a real interest in their development, or offers frequent praise and recognition, they are very likely to be engaged. Hiring the right managers is absolutely essential to building an engaged workforce,” Clifton writes.

Carlson School Launching New Leadership Program

An Emerging Leaders Program will debut at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in early 2015.

Five days of classroom sessions will be held in February and March, and participants will have several one-on-one sessions with coaches.

The Carlson School is focusing on the following benefits for the program:

  • Gain insights to capitalize on personal strengths and identify areas of opportunity
  • Develop strategies to authentically lead and develop others
  • Create a personal development action plan to apply what is learned
  • Engage in confidential, one-on-one coaching sessions to improve leadership effectiveness

This program is targeted to people who are leading teams in their workplaces. The tuition cost is $8,500 per participant.

Source: University of Minnesota

Developing better managers

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management has been educating business leaders for decades, but it is about to roll out a new, short-term program that addresses some of the challenges facing middle managers.

“Great managers build development plans around every employee’s strengths,” writes Gallup’s Clifton. “When employees work from strengths, nothing motivates them to achieve more.”

The new Emerging Leaders Program at the Carlson School will include individual coaching sessions, so middle managers can leverage their individual strengths as well as create strategies to capitalize on the strengths of the people they supervise. Participants will begin the program with a “heavy dose of self-insight,” says Connie Wanberg, an industrial relations professor at the Carlson School.

“They start with 360-degree feedback,” Wanberg notes. People involved in a 360-degree feedback process learn how subordinates, peers and supervisors view their workplace performances, so they can get a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses.

General Mills has done a lot of research with the intent of helping their middle managers “build on their strengths to go from good to super leaders,” Wanberg says.

Kevin Wilde and Michael Davis, General Mills executives who lead human resources and talent development efforts at the Fortune 500 company, will serve as practitioners in the program.

Practitioners and Carlson faculty will lead the classroom lectures, discussions and learning exercises over five days in February and March. For six months following the classroom sessions, the participants will receive one-on-one confidential coaching.

“About 70 percent of what people need to learn and grow occurs on the job,” Wanberg says, as people are mentored and push themselves to develop new skills through new assignments.

But she stresses that nearly everybody needs help navigating organizational cultures and understanding the human dynamics of workplaces. That’s why she believes the Carlson program can help by giving middle managers “time to reflect and hear other people’s stories.”

Behaviors that derail

During the Emerging Leaders sessions, Wanberg says that participants will learn about “derailers”— weaknesses that can thwart middle managers from becoming effective leaders.

The global Center for Creative Leadership, established in 1970 to foster leadership development, has found that many “individuals lack organizational savvy or the ability to influence people, especially across business functions,” she says. “We’re trying to help them understand how to get buy-in and move from an idea into action.”

While some people have excellent substantive knowledge and accomplishments in a given specialty such as accounting or marketing, Wanberg says, they may lack what could be called “executive presence.” Managers may not be taken seriously if they don’t use the right tone of voice and speaking patterns, she says, explaining that managers need to be self-aware and may need to alter some of their verbal and nonverbal communication styles to become more effective leaders.

In working with clients in consulting relationships, Wanberg says she also has seen managers who fail to balance their internal and external responsibilities. “There are some people who pay a lot of attention to external issues, focusing primarily on customers,” she says. But if that manager also has responsibility for supervising a team of workers, problems will surface if he or she doesn’t give sufficient coaching or feedback to team members.

Other managers may have what Wanberg calls “cracks in character, such as poor treatment of others or not looking out for what’s best for the organization.” In addition, she says, some middle managers are too wedded to their own ideas, abrasive, volatile or lose their tempers with subordinates.

Wanberg’s a big believer in feedback and giving people the tools and opportunities they need to improve. However, in some cases, “you have to move people into other positions and have the guts to say it’s not working,” she says.

Controlling vs. leading

Bill George, former Medtronic CEO and a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, was quick to respond to the Times commentary.

In his own opinion article, George contends that many workers lack passion for their jobs because of the organizational climate in their workplaces.

“The role of middle management requires fundamental changes,” George writes. “Instead of managers who control, we need leaders who inspire in these roles. They should work alongside their employees, doing more than their fair share of the most challenging aspects of the work. Their leadership role is to champion the company’s mission and values, and to challenge others to meet higher standards on behalf of their customers.

“It is the job of these leaders to facilitate the work of the people they lead by making their jobs easier, and removing bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles,” he argues. “Middle managers who cannot make this shift may have to move on to new roles elsewhere. All of these actions make these leaders more like partners and coaches than bosses and controllers in the traditional sense.”

Michael Kithcart, a senior consultant with the Bailey Group in Golden Valley, recently completed a leadership effectiveness study, interviewing chief executives who lead middle-market companies ($10 million to $1 billion in annual revenue).

While financial goals and change initiatives are crafted by chief executives, Kithcart emphasizes the importance of middle managers’ ability to execute the strategies with front-line workers.

“It’s hard for the functional leaders to navigate through change management if the executive leadership team hasn’t put in the time and energy up front” to clearly define how change should happen, she says.

“Middle managers can grow frustrated when executive leadership is not clear on objectives and initiatives,” Kithcart says. Setting priorities places middle managers and their teams in a better position to succeed, she says. “Doing fewer things better yields greater results.”

George, who has written extensively about authentic leadership that emphasizes self-knowledge and clarity of values, argues that the role of middle managers needs to be redefined to improve employee engagement and business performance.

He contends that increasing the number of direct reports for middle managers would force them to act more as leaders and coaches rather than controlling managers. He would shift more responsibility and compensation to first-line workers. “We need to trust employees, not control them, by empowering them to carry out the company’s mission on behalf of customers,” George writes. “They should be given full responsibility for performance, quality, achievement of goals and compliance with company standards.”

In his role at Harvard, George teaches managers to examine their leadership strengths and challenges. While not every manager gets the opportunity to study at Harvard or the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School, a range of support tools can help middle managers perform better on behalf of their organizations and team employees.

“Sometimes middle managers have to ask for what they need,” Kithcart says. “Regular one-on-ones [with their supervisors], performance reviews, individual development plans, mentoring programs and cohort leadership workshops are all ways to provide personal development that creates stronger leaders [who are] better prepared to advance in an organization.”

In-House Investments in Leadership Training

Ernst & Young is among the many businesses investing in customized leadership training. The following three programs are among those delivered in-house for Ernst & Young employees.

This is a comprehensive, global career development framework, which includes learning sessions, experiences and coaching. The sessions include modules to build diverse and inclusive high-performing teams as well as offering employees tools to help them drive their career growth.

Leadership Matters
These sessions are targeted to executives and people in the executive pipeline. The program explores the impact of unintended associations, develops mindsets and habits for leading inclusively, builds skills and practices to optimize and transform the organizational culture, and fosters commitments to practice visible inclusive leadership at the personal, team and organizational levels.

Every year, Ernst & Young hosts a weeklong training program for mid-career managers called Milestones. More than 3,500 Ernst & Young professionals who have attained certain key promotions in their careers convene to focus on the tools and foundational learning they need to grow as leaders. Content includes individual social styles, internal biases that one brings to interactions with others and effective leadership of high-performing teams.

Source: Ernst & Young

Generational differences in managing employees

Today’s middle managers also face the challenge of leading employees from different generations, who often have different priorities and strengths in the workplace. Ernst & Young, the accounting and professional services firm, conducted a generations survey last year that shed some light on the managerial characteristics of generation Y or millennials (ages 18 to 32), generation X (33 to 48) and baby boomers (49 to 67).

Generation X was chosen by 70 percent of the respondents as the “best equipped to manage teams effectively overall.” Baby boomers were selected by 25 percent of those surveyed; only 5 percent chose Generation Y.

Baby boomers were selected by 48 percent of respondents as the best generation to “manage in challenging times.” Generation X followed closely behind with 44 percent of responses.

Generations X and Y tied at 44 percent, when respondents were asked to identify which generation was best at addressing diversity concerns.

Among the managers surveyed, three out of four agreed with the statement that managing multi-generational teams is a challenge. Sixty-nine percent reported that their organizations had made efforts to alleviate the challenges of managing a generational mix of workers. Those approaches included work style accommodations, team-building exercises, generational differences training, cross-generational networking and tailored communications.

John Wilgers, Minneapolis office managing partner for Ernst & Young, has worked for the firm for his entire 32-year career. (The company changed its name to EY in 2013.)

He acknowledges that generational differences weren’t on his radar when he was starting out in Kansas City. “I frankly could not remember having those types of generational discussions back then,” Wilgers says. “We didn’t have them, or I was at a place in my career in which I wasn’t tuned into them.”

Now, when he thinks about generational dialogues, he says he recognizes “the importance of exercising flexibility in how you work with people, because there are differences.”

He also notes that each generation brings various benefits to the workplace. “That’s why it’s really important for middle managers to seek different points of view and be deliberate about that process,” Wilgers says.

He encourages managers to solicit advice from employees across generations. “That will have two effects,” he says. “That will give the person who is leading great perspective and help them to build strong teams. It will also result in better engagement with the people who now feel that their opinions are respected and heard.”

Soft skills and self-knowledge

At Ernst & Young, Wilgers says that technical skills, such as accounting or data analysis competencies, are a given in new hires. But as people’s careers grow and change, the company helps managers develop the soft skills they’ll need to be successful.

When managing people of different generations, genders or ethnic backgrounds, Wilgers says, “treating everybody the same won’t work. You need to focus on treating people fairly.”

But before managers can do a good job of leading others, many leadership experts argue that they must discover how to lead themselves.

“Organizational change is inseparable from individual change. Simply put, change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves,” write Nate Boaz and Erica Ariel Fox in a recent McKinsey & Co. publication.

“McKinsey research and client experience suggest that half of all efforts to transform organizational performance fail either because senior managers don’t act as role models for change, or because people in the organization defend the status quo,” they write. “Despite the stated change goals, people on the ground tend to behave as they did before. Equally, the same McKinsey research indicates that if companies can identify and address pervasive mindsets at the outset, they are four times more likely to succeed in organizational-change efforts than are companies that overlook this stage.”

Change can cause fear in workplaces, which is why constructive change is most likely to occur when people like their supervisors and feel good about their organizational cultures.

“Employees don’t want to be satisfied as much as they want to be engaged,” writes Gallup’s Clifton. “What they want most is a great boss who cares about their development, and a company that focuses on and develops their strengths.”

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