by George Nott

In defence of middle management

Jun 26, 2019
Business IntelligenceCareersCloud Computing

Soon after ANZ announced it would roll-out its own-brand of organisation-wide ‘scaled agile’ in 2017, Maile Carnegie launched a scathing attack on the “frozen middle” management layer at the bank who she believed would “resist change like death”.

Carnegie, the then group executive digital banking who has since been promoted to group executive digital and Australia transformation, explained to a Sydney audience the difficulties in dealing with people in the bank who had “graduated from doing to managing and basically bossing other people around”.

“[The transformation] It exposes that they have no skills any more. Figuring out how to deal with the frozen middle, once you have the boss’ support, is the big thing. If they’re not going to become craftsman and learn anymore, they need to move on,” the former managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, said.

While the value of middle managers is being closely scrutinised within many organisations, according to recruitment firm Hays they can be a businesses’ “biggest asset”.

“As the link between senior leadership and operational staff, middle management are often the key to success in an organisation,” said Nick Deligiannis, managing director of Hays in Australia and New Zealand.

“They embody an organisation’s culture, make change happen, are accountable for delivering results and are central to employee retention. Yet the undervaluing of middle management is all too common,” he explained.

In a survey of talent experts and consultants, Hays found that one of the biggest problems with middle managers is their image.

Dr Zara Whysall, head of research at talent management specialists Kiddy Partners, the role simply needs a “rebrand”.

“For years, middle managers have been overlooked when it comes to talent management, falling into the no-man’s-land between ‘top talent’ and ‘rising stars’. The role needs to be seen, and treated, as a destination in itself,” she said.

To get more value from the ‘frozen middle’ Hays provides the following tips: conduct open and honest career development conversations; create a better culture, ask for middle managers’ feedback; develop their skills, particularly in networking; and make sure they are being delegated effectively to.

PwC Australia advises a more firm-handed approach, giving three main options to remove the barriers presented by middle management: “chip away, move them on or light a fire”.

The consultancy firm splits middle managers into four archetypes, who require different treatment to ‘thaw’:

‘Cynics’ have been through lots of change and efforts need to be made to “build trust”, PwC says.

There are the ‘Comfortable Leader’ folk who have no appetite for another transformation effort. “They should be told they have to go on the journey, but they won’t need to carry the load,” PwC says.

Then there is the ‘Twilight Executive’ a group looking at retirement and not motivated to help reinvent the organisation. PwC says organisations should “Try to inspire them to play a leadership role”.

The most tricky type to handle is the ‘Self-Saboteur’ who see the potential of change but lack necessary leadership skills so often get left on the sidelines “sabotaging the transformation and their own careers”.

“As a society we can’t get rid of our frozen middle and just pass them on to someone else. We have to get them performing,” PwC Australia said.