Despite what Zappos says, middle managers still matter

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Middle managers have not fared well. Their ranks have been decimated in many organizations, and those that have survived are often perceived as powerless or, worse, as bureaucratic sticks-in-the-mud. This is not fair and it’s flat-out wrong.

Take what’s happening with Zappos at the moment. Much has been written about their adoption of a self-management system—holacracy—with no job titles and zero managers. That move earlier this month saw 14% of their workforce choose to leave the retailer. While I applaud their effort to break down unnecessary walls, getting rid of managers is not the answer.

Middle managers are increasingly vital to an organization’s success, though for different reasons than in the past. In the conventional hierarchical organization, middle managers used to be instrumental for controlling information flows and ensuring that frontline workers were producing. Roles were clearly defined and orders flowed from the top down. Those in the middle managed the inputs and outputs. But we’re now in an era where information is far more free-flowing and hierarchical lines are blurred.

Middle managers today need different skills and play a different role than their “command and control” era predecessors. According to a Harvard Business Review study, some 67% of companies recognize that they need to revamp their middle manager development programs. And at Red Hat we support a key set of capabilities that, for our organization, make a middle manager great. With many of our stars in this group—here’s what makes them so invaluable:

Influence

Most people think that middle managers are becoming less important because they make fewer direct decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Middle managers need to be able to bridge the gap in understanding that often lies between an organization’s senior leaders and those who are responsible for its daily operations. And they can have a massive impact on performance by catalyzing direction even within the most self-directed of workforces.

Their new charge is to lead not by fiat, but by influence. “Because I said so” doesn’t work with the current workforce. Instead of pulling rank with a subordinate or deferring to an executive, today’s middle managers must build influence and gain credibility by listening to concerns and offering context that leads to better decisions. Creating context is key.

At the same time, they need to influence their peers throughout the organization to ensure that efforts are aligned and pulling in the same direction. That’s especially true in fast growing and globally distributed organizations like Red Hat. We need our middle managers to keep us all on the same page.

Inspiration

We all know that innovation and passion are critical to a company’s success. But let’s face it, you can’t force someone to be creative or passionate about their work. So the middle manager’s role has become less about making sure people do what they’re told, and more about inspiring people to perform at their best.

The best managers are those who marry their IQ with their EQ. They focus on the “whys” and “hows” rather than the “whats.” They are visionary, big picture thinkers who know how to create a sense of shared ownership and responsibility, as opposed to simply issuing orders.

Being a middle manager often means taking less pride in your own achievements than in what your people accomplish. It’s about putting the right people into the right places, looking for ways to tap into their passion and insight, and unlocking their full potential.

Inclusion

An open organization is a meritocracy, where good ideas can come from anywhere, and the best ideas win. Middle management’s job is to create communication channels that allow ideas to percolate and circulate throughout the organization.

Middle managers play a vital role in ensuring that all voices are heard, not just the loudest ones. They invite people to speak up and contribute their ideas, especially when their views diverge from the majority.

In most organizations, the biggest clue that there is disagreement in the room is when nobody says anything at all. Concerns tend to come out around the water cooler, out of management’s earshot. Middle managers can make it safe to raise objections. They can ask frontline workers questions like, “From your perspective, what are we missing with this plan?”

The new roles that middle managers must play require different skills and capabilities than in the past. Open organizations must invest to develop these leaders. It starts with explicitly recognizing their new role. Training around soft skills. Building culture that recognizes and celebrates the right behaviors.

Originally published by Harvard Business Review. All rights reserved.

Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.

4 Comments

It's heartening to see this (and not just because my career is heading in that direction). My experience with smaller self-directed teams (de facto, there was a management structure on paper, but it was ineffective) is that they tend to go off on whatever the group finds interesting, not necessarily in what's in the best interest of the organization. The best managers at any level are the ones who can walk in the both strategic and tactical worlds without missing a step.

disclaimer: i'm a former manager at zappos (still employed just no longer a manager) and am a big fan of the self-organization movement.

i would argue that he's describing a need for leadership, not managers. every self-organized system i've studied has expressed the need for leadership but acknowledges that true leadership (as opposed to management) happens organically. the ability to influence and inspire comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.

in a well functioning top-down hierarchy, the higher-ups are perfect at identifying the natural leaders and then promoting them to make their already earned influence official. unfortunately, noone has that kind of perfect vision and people who are not leaders still get promoted to manager (for political reasons as much as any other). when a system has managers that are not leaders, the hierarchy does much more harm than good. (one good book on the topic is Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek)

as far as inclusion, i've not seen anything as effective at including all voices as holacracy's Integrative Decision Making Process (https://medium.com/org-hacking/holacracys-integrative-decision-making-process-f750d4b82abc). if a hierarchy exists, a manager can squash any proposal they deem to be unworthy even if they do it gently (i.e. " i don't think that's the best use of your time"). in a truly self-organized system, the directive to everyone is "it's your responsibility to figure out what the best use of your time is for the purpose of the company," which goes far to create a culture of inclusion.

I hid my name because I once interviewed for a very high management role at Zappos. The CEO interviewed me. He asked me a series of [what he considered to be] advanced math questions. Clearly he expected me to answer at least one of the questions incorrectly. However I graduated from high school at the age of ten, so what do you think the likelihood of THAT was? <insert smirky face here> After the last question was answered correctly, he got IMMEDIATELY VERY ANGRY AND ABRUPTLY ENDED THE INTERVIEW.

That was years ago. Since then I've done a lot of things, mostly entrepreneurial and usually quite successfully (given my ability to focus & prepare before moving forward on my goals). Had I landed the role with Zappos, I would probably be in jail now, having 'successfully' murdered that company's CEO. :) But instead I cofounded a startup with a longtime friend and I also 'angel funded' it.
We sold the startup a few months back and for my total investment of under $2M, I made a profit of 5 times my investment. Can't knock that huh.
Now I spend my time writing a book REFUTING Agile Methodology and it's naive idea that middle managers are unnecessary. Of course, with some forethought, I acquired a couple of Agile certifications along the way, even though I knew the methodology was seriously flawed.
But you see I also know that people are, for the most part, sheeple who always want someone else to be responsible for their failures (though they will take 100% credit for their successes).
As part of that sheeple mentality, they expect their mentors to be certified in whatever is the current baloney. Ergo, I AM.
What happens if there are no middle managers and a company relies instead on a bogus illusion of highly successful 'self organized' teams? Ah! for the entire story, you'll need to read my book (I'm doing what I hope is final revisions right now). Coming late spring 2016.
But here's a hint: How do you build team synergy when there is no mentor / manager to ensure everyone on team gets a chance to provide thoughtful input into the processes and projects, etc. -- not just the BARKING DAWG(s)? EXACTLY.

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