Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich. Vegetable Cheese Sandwich. Minced Chicken Sandwich. Tuna Sandwich. – What are the highlights of these sandwiches?
The bread? The seasoning? No, it’s the filling.
More often than not, the middle management has been defined as the meat or the filling of the corporate sandwich. But, are they really the highlight of the sandwich? Do they get the recognition they deserve? How can the middle managers keep themselves motivated? How can they evolve from being middle-level managers to thought leaders?
At our recent Zinnov Confluence 2019 – India chapter, Sukanya Roy, Director, Zinnov chaired a panel comprising of eminent industry leaders like Shashank Bhushan, Head of India & VP-HR, BMC Software India Pvt. Ltd.; Vinita Gera, Senior Director and General Manager, India COE, Dell Technologies; Rency Mathew, Senior Director Human Resources, Scientific Games India Pvt. Ltd.; and Sunil Panjwani, Senior Director, Software Development Automation and Analytics, Cisco DNA-Center on how Middle Managers are the strategic linchpins of an organization. The panel discussion throws light on how middle managers can transform themselves into thought leaders and redefine their roles to stay motivated and drive change at their level. Here’s an excerpt from the insightful discussion:
Sukanya: How do you define middle management?
Rency: Middle management is the first line and second-line managers in the Talent pyramid – the ones who are in the middle. They are basically the middle layer of the sandwich.
Sukanya: Do you think that the number of middle-level managers is growing rapidly?
Shashank: As a country, we have always put people who seemingly have power, on a pedestal. It starts at a very young age when kids aspire to become the class monitors, prefects, and captains. Even in cricket, we tend to remember the captains and the leaders. So, as a society, we have always perceived the management role as a powerful one, and hence it attracts a lot of young professionals. With the IT boom in India, as the number of IT professionals increased, the need to have managers who can manage them also increased. So, it wasn’t a phenomenon that happened overnight – it is an accumulation of the legacy that we have been carrying for generations.
Sunil: I think it’s a combination of societal pressures and the industry’s evolution. I have seen people want to become managers to feel respected in society. Another aspect is how we have emulated several industries in terms of management, where hierarchy/supervising was the way to manage people. It worked for a while, but now we need to relook at it to figure out if it’s the right way. It also depends on the company culture – how much self-discipline is present and can employees manage without guidance and supervision. Often, the most critical job that middle management has is to direct the work and ensure discipline. So, I think organizational culture is another important aspect that makes an impact.
Sukanya: With several tracking tools and technologies coming into the picture, do you think the middle management layer is becoming obsolete? Or do you think this role will remain critical?
Rency: At Scientific Games, a manager not only plays the role of interpreting the vision of the organization/leadership, but they also play a crucial role in enabling conversations with the millennials and the new-age workforce. The middle management is hence a point of contact between the leaders and the new-age workforce. So, I think the role will exist but will need to evolve.
Vinita: The status quo is changing, and how we work is changing. From making weekly reports to taking strategic decisions, the role is evolving, and very quickly so. I think the role of middle management is very critical – it is the eye of the organization. Having said that, we ran an initiative in a particular function, where the team was self-organized, without the concept of a manager. The initiative has proven to be a success, and we plan to expand it across functions.
Sukanya: There is a possibility of this role becoming redundant. If that happens, then what are the other roles in an organization that middle-level managers can fill?
Sunil: I believe that execution is the key, and the middle management helps execute strategies and translate the organization’s vision. So, I think what happens is, when people become managers, the industry puts these first-line managers through soft-skills training to enable them to manage people along with the technical aspects. However, with time, the technical management takes a backseat and the role becomes confined to people management. So, what middle management and the entire industry need to do is not just focus on people management, but also engineering/technical management and product management. The right combination of the skills that they will pick up can help the managers make a much bigger impact. Hence, the role needs to evolve, rather than disappear, so that it can drive more value for the organization.
Shashank: I think the evolution of the role is also necessary to keep up with the changes. In my time, the manager was the SME, the smartest one in the room. But today, there’s no true SME and it’s certainly not the manager. A young employee might be more technologically adept than the manager. So, what the manager needs to do is be a facilitator and get out of the way – basically let go. And, it is a hard thing to do, to accept that you are not the smartest. But at the same time, it is imperative that they facilitate and enable the workforce to bring out their best and translate the vision of the team and the organization.
Sukanya: What are the other skills that the middle management can potentially take on to evolve and stay relevant?
Vinita: India is on a product development hot streak and giving rise to a lot of product management roles. So, who can better take on these roles than ones who have developed the product and have a deep understanding of the products? Also, we can look at horizontal roles – product management, customer-facing roles. However, I couldn’t agree with Shashank more on how, as a leader, we shouldn’t come in our team’s way and give them the room to innovate by being a facilitator. This will also give the manager that extra time to think beyond day-to-day decision-making and monitoring job and explore options to innovate.
Sukanya: Do you think the skills needed for customer-facing and product management roles are inherent or they need to be acquired?
Vinita: I think there’s some transition required. We need training; however, the formal training to become a product manager is very niche right now. It is very community-centric. I happen to be a part of such niche groups/communities and what I have learned from a 4-day-long class was just the tip of the iceberg.
Sukanya: So, you are saying, it needs to be experiential?
Vinita: Experiential, sharing, doing, yes.
Sukanya: The transition from middle managers to thought leaders – Where does the responsibility lie? Is it on the individuals or on the organization?
Rency: I think the onus lies on the individual. Usually, we see managers grow organically within an organization where there are defined career paths and training for the individuals. So what I see missing in these individuals is that they stop thinking about their own career plans and become short-sighted. The individual needs to take the reins of their careers in their own hands.
Shashank: I think it is a partnership between the organization and the individual, and organizations have a bigger stake in this. This is for multiple reasons. First, because the organization has its own focus areas and it is in the interest of the organization to help managers tread the same path. Also, often, the definition of the role differs in an organization from manager to manager – for some, it could be something as basic as approving leaves and expenses. Hence, I think it is very important for organizations to define what is expected of a manager and also how to enable these managers. You cannot put managers through a two-day training program and expect them to emerge as phenomenal managers.
Sukanya: What about the reskilling aspect? How can organizations enable that?
Shashank: With organizations being so task- and result-oriented, how can individuals muster up the courage to go beyond the scope and learn something new that is not a part of their current role? I think as an organization, there should be frameworks in place that can help enable the managers to learn skills beyond the scope of their current responsibilities. I think it will be very hard for individuals to figure out how they can move into different roles, and that’s where organizations can play their part.
Breaking the mold
The role of middle management is evolving, and the onus lies on both individuals and organizations to enable this evolution in the right direction. Most of the organizations have formal immersive programs for middle management, and yet there’s a dearth of thought leaders. This is mostly because the middle management is often so burdened with deliverables that they don’t have enough time to invest in themselves. To solve this, managers need to build a succession plan by finding their successors, delegate work, and trust. This will give them the time to evolve and break their mold by continuously building newer competencies. So, middle managers need to rethink their roles, realign their goals, and reskill to stay relevant.