In praise of Middle Managers

So the FT is reporting that the middle manager is dead, largely thanks to a swathe of lay-offs in the tech sector that got a bit bloated and arrogant during the pandemic and thought the pandemic was going to last forever.

Tech bros gonna tech bro, huh.

Instead, what we have are hyper-specialised individuals in agile teams that can make decisions more quickly. Except that’s not true. See Twitter, the archetypal shitstorm of a company that has shed its middle managers and lost its way. Nobody knows what’s happening. Look at Meta, another company owned & run by a hollowed-out shell of a man who WhatsApps 21,000 people to tell them they’re no longer employed.

They’re calling it “the flattening”.

Middle Management is a bit of a joke in itself. And it shouldn’t be.

Yet it’s come to represent that nothingness space in between those who do the work, and those who sit in the C-suite. The not-totally-strategic-but-not-totally-hands-on slice of worker that the Tory government whine about when it’s in the NHS for instance. Bureaucratic meddlers they say. The men in suits.

Or, you could see it like this – they’re the organisers. The been-there-done-that people. The ones who step in when things go wrong. The ones who make things tick.

Many years ago when I started watching cricket, I used to go and watch Lancashire quite a lot. The club captain when I first started following the team was a guy called David Hughes. He didn’t bat much. He didn’t bowl. And he was getting on a bit, so he took positions in the field that meant he didn’t have to field much.

But, as I was informed, he used to be a great batsman. He used to be a good bowler. But now – he’s the man who makes Lancashire tick. Without Hughes, they’d be nothing.

In short, they had a middle manager. Hughes was the man the younger players turned to for advice. He knew the game inside-out.

He wouldn’t survive in today’s era where every team member has to contribute something tangible. Cricket is a little bit tech bro these days. The untangibles of middle management are being forgotten. Once a player loses their edge, takes a few runs off their average, they’re discarded, sent to Sky for commentary purposes or to the boardroom for powerpoints and motivational speeches.

  • Middle managers are not project managers. And yet they take on part of that duty.
  • They’re not HR managers. And yet the fulfil a part of that duty too.
  • They’re not hands-on. And yet when people go on holiday, who steps in? They do.
  • They’re not strategists. But when you need someone who can grow into that role, where does that person come from? Middle management.
  • They’re not C-Suite. But when you’re trying to grow future leaders, where might they come from? Middle management.
  • They’re not finance people, and yet they’re often responsible for budgets.
  • They’re not your training department, and yet they’re often training younger members of staff.

A relentless focus on the tangible & the directly measurable is great, but it ignores the intangible that underpins what is supposedly directly measurable. Look at AirBnB who have gone all-in on brand ahead of performance. It’s a direct parallel – you can’t immediately measure the value of your brand, especially compared to the value of your ad spend, but if you back the right intangibles, then the tangibles follow.

These layoffs will slow, eventually.

And the tech bros will realise that without their middle managers, you have a lot of talent that needs support. Direction. A wise head.

So let’s get behind our middle managers, the glue in our organisations, the intangible tangibles and the unfairly maligned people who just make things work.

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