Lessons from the Past 55: Middle Management

Why are middle managers the lost tribe?

Many times when I look at middle management (MM) in the corporate world, I tend to describe it as the “lost tribe” of biblical times. They are caught between running with the fox and running with the dog. It is a group that is caught between the small, hand-picked management that wields power, and the large workforce, which also wields power with its workforce.

MM was charged with many responsibilities, but with limited authority. They are often expected to take the blame when something goes wrong, and sometimes also to pay the price. However, they are rarely asked to take credit when it is due.

The old and often repeated complaint is often remembered:

‘We the volunteers,

Guided by the unknown,

do the impossible,

For the ungrateful

Middle management is like the middle class

Middle managers in companies suffer from the same problems as the middle class in companies. The top management is up there, often isolated from the rest. The lowest levels have the power in numbers and their unions will not allow them to be taken for granted. The middle leadership is stuck in between – without the authority of the top, nor the muscle power of the populous bottom.

Yet, middle management is really meant to be the classroom, where the training and screening (for future leadership positions) takes place. But does this really happen? If we look at the number of external candidates brought in to fill senior management vacancies in the company – and the number of exceptional middle managers who leave to seek and acquire management positions in other companies – we know what is the answer.

A good parallel to middle management is the midfield players in the football team. They prepare the way for the front line to shoot and score. They also help defend and reduce pressure on full-backs and the goalkeeper. Yet they are taken for granted. They will never have the media exposure like Ronaldo! Yet, if they weren’t there, there would be no Ronaldo. They are there, and thank goodness they ARE there.

Only senior management knows better

I refresh my memory to go back to 1963, when I was a middle manager. I had completed my management internship period at Glaxo and was then assigned to the sales department (there was no term ‘marketing’ at the time) as a special assistant to the sales manager . I decided to expand my work and undertake limited market research to identify new market opportunities.

I developed a good relationship with the R&D manager so that we could work together for mutual benefit. As a result of this effort, we were able to introduce a new drug formulation which was very successful. We also worked on diversification for a vitamin A chemical plant in Maharashtra.

Even though my boss was proud of me and his department’s accomplishments, he wouldn’t let me expand the workgroup so we could do more. Instead, secretly but with board approval, he hired a senior executive from another multinational company to head the new official market research division, and to whom I would report.

The new senior manager had experience selling consumer products, but had no qualifications in pharmaceutical technology. I ended up tutoring him in pharmaceuticals until after six months I lost my patience and quit to join another multinational as a senior executive.

I would have liked to stay; Glaxo was my first job and I stayed there for seven years, and I loved it. But my upper management, instead of encouraging me and building my confidence to generate more success, did just the opposite. I was “led by the unknown…working for the ingrate”.

Middle managers sometimes/often caught off guard

When I worked for an American multinational, I recruited an advertising executive with eight years’ experience and convinced him to move from Mumbai to southern India. He wanted to work on the client side rather than in an agency, and live a new and different experience.

Everything went well for two years, until the day when the CEO informed me of his dissatisfaction with the performance of Suresh. He wanted Suresh replaced. I felt Suresh was doing his job well and disagreed with the suggested course of action. I had been responsible for uprooting Suresh from his base in Mumbai, and I just couldn’t understand what had triggered the CEO’s anti-Suresh tirade.

When the CEO made the request for the fourth time, I first offered to resign and leave, then the CEO could do whatever he wanted. With such “contrary posture”, the CEO went down and the request was never made again. Suresh stayed with the company for many years even after I left for another assignment.

This incident shows how middle managers can get caught up in petty politics, even whims and fancies, and can become unsuspecting victims in corporate political games. They also become targets for revenge against their boss when an opponent cannot attack the boss in a direct manner.

Top management success cannot always be replicated many years later

Clayton Christensen gives the example of one of the biggest mergers of recent times – Pandesic, a collaboration of two of the world’s technical giants – Intel and SAP. It was founded in 1997 with high hopes and funding of US$100 million. Intel and SAP have chosen some of their most valued people to lead this premier joint venture.

But just three years later, Pandesic was declared a colossal failure.


Because the people chosen to lead the project were very experienced, but they weren’t the right people for the job. They had stellar resumes, but none of them had experience starting a new business.

None of them knew how to readjust a strategy when the first one didn’t work. No one had the experience to understand how to make a brand profitable before developing it.

Pandesic needed middle managers, who had been through start-up company cleanup fires, rather than suave top managers who had never handled such fires, or had forgotten such fires existed because they had lived through them. so long ago!

Companies like Unilever continue to stir the cauldron of middle managers

Middle management is the cauldron where learning and training take place. Depending on how well they handled the challenges, managers are selected for positions at the top – either existing positions or new ones created from expansions, mergers or acquisitions.

One company that does this successfully is Unilever, where the chairman serves a five-year term, regardless of age. Within six months of his appointment, the president must also submit the names of three potential successors, who will then be closely monitored by world headquarters.

Such a system creates a certain dynamic. Positions are created in top management by a process; this momentum is carried through to middle management, so there is movement and hope throughout the organization. Unilever’s continued and sustained growth over the past four generations is largely due to this advantage.

Middle management also has its share of performers and supporters

It should not be forgotten that, as in many other groups, the middle management is made up of performers and pimps. The performers will only be 25%. Every business must create an environment of comfort and challenge for supporters, who will not travel very far beyond their current positions.

Yet the company must also create an environment of restlessness and challenge for high achievers, who have the ambition to finally settle in the office corner. Doing this isn’t easy – it takes a lot of thought and hard work. It’s a great balancing act.

Politicians have a hard time getting votes from the thinking middle class. Similarly, companies struggle to get the most out of middle management as a group. To achieve this, the role of HR is much more critical and important than in the past.

In addition, it also needs a “THC” management team to provide leadership, with an optimal balance between technical, human and conceptual skills, so that there is alignment of vision and objectives throughout. the organization.

So we can support the “lost tribe”, and not allow them to be ruled by ignorance, and end up feeling that they are working for the ungrateful.

(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a business executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consultancy in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked globally across four continents. He was the first elected Asian President of ICMCI, the global umbrella body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor in marketing in the United States, Europe and Asia. His latest books are “5 Gs of family Business” with Dr. Mita Dixit and “Marketing in a Digital/Data World” with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of his time in NGO work.)

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