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Middle management: the Phoenix phenomenon.

Forget everything you have heard about middle managers--like Phoenix: they are rising from the ashes. Today's middle managers are at the core of organizational competence. They are the key to balancing tensions within organizations, the stabilizers who make enduring change possible, the source of real-time strategies, the power train linking strategy to action.

They are also the leaders who convert empowerment and teamwork from lip service to customer service. Success today depends increasingly on the performance of the new middle manager.

This is nothing less than a corporate about-face. For at least a decade, business pundits have been writing off middle managers in a big way. Some gurus of management, like Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, once called for their virtual extinction.


A new perspective is emerging in both Canada and other western economies. This became evident during interviews I conducted with over 100 senior executives in Canada. Innovative top managers from international companies reported that they have been re-assessing the role of middle management and are now beginning to recognize a new, quite different role. This renewed appreciation for the middle manager has often resulted from efforts to become more "process-based" or "horizontal." As tension develops between the attempt to be more horizontal and the vestiges (some very positive) of hierarchical organization, middle managers take on a more significant role.

Today's middle managers work where the horizontal meets the hierarchical. Few organizations have remained completely hierarchical or have adopted completely horizontal process-driven structures. This increases the importance of middle managers. They often hold a position of responsibility in both a function and a core process. As such, they can solve problems, communicate responses, and help ease the tensions that develop.

An important characteristic of their role is that as organizations move toward a process orientation, prior expertise and technical capability become crucial anchors for organizational stability. Excellence in jobs newly configured for the horizontal organization depends a great deal on the manager's ability to influence those around him or her. This respect is often earned through superior expertise or capability acquired over many years in a specific function. The "towers of excellence" remain a breeding ground of strength for the horizontal organization.


One of the most significant organizational paradoxes is that positive change requires significant stability. Without stabilizers, the result is chaos--not improved performance. Middle managers can act as important stabilizers within a company. By virtue of their position at the nexus and their experience, they can, and should, be the key to balancing this paradox of change and stability.

During the recent wave of business restructuring, many organizations in Canada have lost some of their best and brightest middle managers, who found a willing market and moved on before they were forced out. Such companies lost much of their institutional memory and a key source of stability.

The best executives recognize that good middle managers provide institutional memory and an instinct for stability. Both are necessary if the company is to change without jumping from crisis to crisis. The key point is: stabilizers do not necessarily prevent change; some facilitate it. Middle managers have the experience and understanding necessary to embrace a change program logically and uncover the importance of the improvements it will bring. Instead of perceiving middle managers as resistant to change, top managers have given more autonomy to middle managers in order to allow them not only to implement strategies, but also to adjust the pace of changes within organizations.


Top executives have described a dramatic shift in management's approach to strategic planning. Organizations are pushing strategic thinking and planning out of head office and back into the line. They have discovered that the best strategic planning departments do not exist. As one senior executive told me: "I'm not saying I want my planners to get their hands dirty. I'm saying I want those with dirty hands to do the planning".

To compete, organizations now realize they must be both highly skilled at operations and capable of thinking and acting strategically on the competitive battlefield. The speed of change alone warrants greater reliance on middle managers for strategy. When General Norman Schwarzkopf said: "No battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy," it seems he had it right. Like field commanders, middle managers are the only ones who can know what is occurring in a marketplace that changes rapidly.

In many cases, companies have tried to transform themselves without rethinking the way in which decisions are made and, more important still, who decides. When decision-making goes untouched, organizations generate: both inordinate conflict and debilitating indecisiveness. The more flexible the organization, the less evident who is actually in charge. The best companies clearly articulate who is responsible and accountable for what and, just as importantly, who is not.

Companies that are successfully transforming the roles of middle managers are taking specific steps to structure their authority. They explicitly structure middle management's responsibilities for maintaining and ensuring the success of networks with customers, suppliers, and outsourced functions.


Sage executives have renewed their focus on the relationship between the knowledge each employee has and the intermediate manager. Middle managers are in the right place to judge the complexity of a situation, to understand the knowledge applied during each specific situation, adjust goals in real time, and integrate individual knowledge in norms and organizational procedures. The new agenda for middle managers asks them and trains them to transform individual knowledge into organizational knowledge.

In all successful organizations, middle managers have had the support of top management but the freedom to make decisions and implement strategies in their way. Likewise, knowledge integrators realize that each person has his/her unique knowledge but by integrating such knowledge into organizational knowledge, companies can motivate employees and, at the same time, reduce the dependency on the individuality of such employees. Middle managers are in the right place to perceive what solutions can be applied in other areas of the organization.

Another important role for middle managers involves a much needed new approach to knowledge sharing. One deficiency of some companies is to solve the same problem more than once. In today's best organizations, knowledge sharing is becoming an every day, on-site, in-line system of exchange and counseling. In one electronics company, high-performance middle managers who had solved certain problems were identified and asked to develop strategies that could be learned by other employees. Once the strategies had been articulated, these individuals went out into the organization to "visit with" various teams and, in the course of the normal workday, demonstrate the innovations. The result was a significant increase in productivity. Information Technology has also facilitated the implementation of virtual communities practices.

This type of knowledge sharing activity recognizes the weak residual impact of written procedures. Real knowledge sharing is for the most part captured in real time. As one senior official said: "I want my managers to wallow in the issues for a while. They really share that way." Such exchanges takes place over time, and only the middle manager is more or less constantly present to spark and monitor the process.
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Janczak, Sergio
Publication:Canadian Manager
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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