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Leading Off
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Whither the middle manager? The past few decades have certainly not been kind to that vast midlevel tier of managers and administrators wedged between senior management and the front line. Businesses have looked to flatten their organizational structures and turned to technology and automation for greater efficiency. Then the pandemic applied unprecedented urgency and exposed the need for greater operational speed. The insular hierarchies that middle management represents suddenly seemed an even greater roadblock to plotting the resilient postpandemic organization. But amid this existential threat to midlevel managers, experts and organizations also glimpse an intriguing opportunity to transform and redefine midlevel roles and blur the traditional divide between mechanistic management and human-centered leadership. This week, let’s explore the future of middle managers and the changing landscape of this critical proving ground for future leaders.
org chart
The definition of “leader” is a work in progress
“Organizational agility represents an existential crisis for middle management,” writes McKinsey senior partner Aaron De Smet. As more and more agile planning becomes emergent and bottom up, and as decision making happens much more on the ground in real time, the traditional middle manager’s role—to communicate, direct, and control—is being cast aside. Some companies are doing away with middle-management layers entirely. Against this backdrop, the idea of leading by directing an organization’s every move gives way to enabling with a sense of humility and curiosity.
That’s the percentage of individuals working in large organizations who said in a survey that bureaucratic behaviors were decisive in who gets ahead. In this video interview with management experts Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, coauthors of Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them (Harvard Business Review Press, August 2020), the two describe a swelling bureaucracy devoted to compliance and played for positional power, rather than to advance corporate and individual purpose. But to delay and reduce management layers, Hamel says, “we’re going to have to unlearn most everything we’ve learned over the last 150 years about how you organize people at work.”
“On the expressways, middle management men pose without grace behind their wheels as they flee city and job.”
So wrote Studs Terkel, the oral historian and journalist, in his masterwork Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (Pantheon, 1974). While the world of work that Terkel explored has long since passed, the popular image of faceless, graceless middle managers has endured—between the rock of the senior executives they have to report to and the hard place of frontline workers who resist being managed. But to some experts, the idea of middle managers as unexceptional supervisors is an anachronism, as is the division between leadership and management. Middle managers “are the engine of the business, the cogs that make things work, the glue that keeps companies together,” writes Zahira Jaser in Harvard Business Review. Certain roles and practices pinpoint the dynamic contribution to purpose and value creation that midlevel managers can make.
broken arrow
“Flatter, faster, leaner” may be the mantra that for decades—and particularly during the pandemic—has mounted an assault on the midtier management ranks. “But while enticing, the notion of eliminating whole swaths of middle management and emerging flatter and faster—we might need to pump the brakes on that a bit,” says McKinsey partner Bryan Hancock in this McKinsey Talks Talent podcast, “The vanishing middle manager.” Even as automation and artificial intelligence displace managerial roles, the middle tier remains “a great test bed for finding out who your future leaders are” and for gauging coaching skills and advancing diversity agendas, notes senior partner Bill Schaninger.
The big redeploy
manager in a compass
As companies push toward more agile operating styles, most of a conventional manager’s responsibilities—such as planning projects, assigning tasks, documenting progress, and evaluating employees—get absorbed by other roles. When a company’s agile transformation is complete, it will have more opportunities for individual contributors and leaders, but few if any positions for managers. Helping midlevel managers make the transition to more agile operating styles can take a lot of effort, but the payoff can be worthwhile in building a faster, more resilient organization. The starting point is understanding what the agile manager actually does. Then, since many midlevel managers possess a wealth of experience, knowledge, and skill, redeploying them as hands-on individual contributors is one way to let them accomplish more than they do in managerial roles. Some tips can help.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office

Special thanks to Marc Metakis, Donnie Stuart, and Tiffany Vogel for their help with this issue.
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