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In praise of the middle manager

November 11, 2023
Borderless Leadership

People quit their bosses. They quit for plenty of other reasons, too, but feelings matter, and work is personal. That’s been true for years, but the importance of developing great managers has become more urgent as workforce participation in the U.S. remains below pre-pandemic levels, with only 62.7% of the working-age population currently in the labor force, while the need for employees to be engaged and constantly learning has increased.

The problem? Good bosses—and the people they manage—are getting less help than ever, as the practice of developing capable leaders gets less focus in a changing world of work.

“The basic conditions for the American employee are that this doesn’t work,” says Bill Schaninger, an author, consultant and senior partner emeritus at McKinsey & Co. He spoke with Forbes in the video above about the value of middle managers and the book he co-authored with two McKinsey colleagues, Power To The Middle.

Too often, companies focus on the wrong levers in trying to boost employee engagement. A raise isn’t enough, especially when higher wages often coincide with higher inflation. Flexibility can help—but disengaged workers can feel even less connected to their companies if they work from home. The nature of the work matters, but doing data entry or dancing for Beyonce is typically decided at the time you’re hired.

Investing in Leadership?
What is critical and controllable is the quality of leadership, Schaninger says, from those for whom managing someone is a new muscle to veteran managers trying to inspire people in a new world. These are the carriers of culture, the coaches, the critics, the often unsung catalysts for success. “Good leaders also help people see their purpose,” he says. “They understand the vision. They know how to communicate it. And they know how to help the individuals come together as a team.”

Their value is sometimes lost on leaders who may think success is self-made. Over the past year, the value of “managers” have incurred the wrath of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and others—ridiculed as bureaucrats and soft-skills peddlers who do little for the bottom line.

They’re wrong, Schaninger says. To start, the number of managers you need depends on the work. “What drives span is the nature of the manager’s job,” says Schaninger. “Are they a player-coach or coordinating? Are there a range of people at different levels or a lot of people with similar skills and tasks?”

Meanwhile, the artisanal nature of some tech jobs, where clever people get engaged in complex tasks, may require a different style of leadership than, say, a construction site or medical setting where everyone is in sync to get the job done. “The majority of time, the manager has more experience, understands risk better, can translate from plan to action, and act as the front line of defense,” says Schaninger.

Rethinking the CEO Factory
Those are learned skills that large companies like P&G, GE, and IBM famously inculcated through programs that gave high-potential leaders exposure to different parts of the business, Schaninger says. Microsoft, Google, Danaher and Medtronic are often viewed as leadership factories today. Recruiters like to see experience at consultancies like McKinsey, EY, PwC, Accenture and Deloitte for similar reasons.

But management is a task most of us simply learn on the job—and those jobs are changing at a rapid speed. Now, it’s more common to talk about learning mindsets and skills training as if leadership is yet another talent you have to develop yourself.

“We invest so much less in actual leadership development,” says Schaninger. “It’s very rare to have a clever generalist who’s problem-solving with real expertise and business savvy and experiences when things go wrong. That’s how you become resilient and grow.”

by Diane Brady


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