loader

On the Frontline: The Middle Manager

On the Frontline: The Middle Manager main image

MBAs – prospective, studying, or degree holding – are an ambitious demographic. The 2013 QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey showed that 43.2% of surveyed MBA applicants saw themselves as a CEO or director of a large company in a decade’s time.

However, it’s fairly unlikely that one will come out of one’s MBA and simply fall into such a role. There are a few steps on the career ladder that will have to be negotiated first – namely ones that fall into the category of middle manager, typically defined as managers who have at least two hierarchical levels below them.

The middle manager, like the bureaucrat, often gets a negative press. Neither can it be said that the term carries with it strong connotations of glamour or power. However, is this reputation somewhat unfair?  In terms of strategic decision making, people management and implementation, these middle levels of management are surely an instrumental part of any larger organization’s success – or failure.

Role of middle managers in business strategy

Dr Ioannis Christodoulou, a senior lecturer in business strategy at Westminster Business School, emphasizes the strategic importance of the middle manager: “Like it or not, the middle manager is a crucial part of the contemporary business world. Unique attention should be paid to them as a totally crucial workforce inside an organization. Middle managers are always involved in the frontline action.”

Despite this, Dr Christodoulou argues, the role of the middle manager and their strategic importance has been somewhat overlooked. “Although plenty of previous authors have made efforts to identify how middle managers should be managed by a top level perspective, very few have actually looked into what exactly middle managers do inside an organization in terms of strategic decision making and behavior, in terms of what makes them successful or a threat and how this is linked to the performance of the company.”

The actions of middle managers, he continues, can also be a window into an organization, allowing insight into how business strategy is implemented, how strategic decision making is translated into action, how change processes are managed, and the creation of core competences and competitive advantage is maintained.

Strategic decision making to create success

The military metaphor of middle managers being on the frontline is apt. Their role is to interpret and translate the larger tactical notions of the business strategy of generals into action from the foot soldiers, reacting when things don’t go to plan and moving quickly to seize unexpected opportunities.

“Middle managers have a clear effect on a company's implementation processes; as competition rates and the pace of change are increasing rapidly, they are more empowered to take strategic actions and hold a greater amount of responsibility to deliver them successfully,” says Dr Christodoulou.

The metaphor extends to communications, as they work to both convey orders from above, as well as conditions in the trenches.

“Middle managers clearly affect how strategic decision making is formulated and implemented. At the same time they are responsible for the effective two way communication from the bottom to the highest levels of hierarchy. That implies that they are the information gatekeepers, responsible for transforming and giving meaning to information from all levels of the organization. In some cases they translate the vision of the top management to the lower levels but in some other cases they communicate upward, channeling ideas from the lower levels towards the top.”

Knowledge is power as they say, and it’s clear how being in possession of information which others need puts the middle manager in a position of power and responsibility.  Consciously or not, this gatekeeper role means the personal stamp of the middle manager will be put on operations.

Management types: from synthesizer to communicator

From this we can perhaps glean that the middle manager’s role is multifarious. However, as with any stratum of the professional world – particularly management – different people work in different ways. Based on literature in the area, Dr Christodoulou identifies several widely accepted management types in the realm of the middle manager.

Synthesizer

The main role of this management type is to collect information from all the possible sources, to process and impart them with a practical and strategic meaning within the company’s vision, and to present them in a way which prepares the field for any following proposals directed towards to the top management.

Facilitator

This facilitator has to gather knowledge and information gleaned from their experiences and interfuse it through the whole organization; a matter of organizational learning. This management type has to support his or her subordinates during difficult personal and professional periods. Finally, the facilitator has to fight against inertia by creating a climate that favors experimentation along with the development of new ideas.

Implementer

 

The role of the implementer is to turn the indefinite goals of top managements’ business strategies into specific action plans that are more easily understood by the lower hierarchical levels of the organizations. Clearly, this creates some scope for creativity in interpretation, depending on the formality of processes.

Champion

The champion promotes strategic options upwards, and detects potential and capability inside the organization. These tasks are often non-official, although there are many examples where such actions have been the catalyst behind important changes or innovations, so this management type – focused on ensuring others don’t get overlooked – should not be overlooked themselves!

Communicator

The communicator is responsible for the morality and psychology of their subordinates, with the goal of making them feel safe – almost akin to a therapist. They convey requests upwards and communicate with cooperators at all levels of the hierarchy.

In his research with Professor Vassilis Papadakis, Christodoulou came to understand that these roles varied under different contexts. “For example, in Greece's turbulent environment and financial crises another role seemed to emerge – the ‘strategic baladeur'; a completely differentiated role, emerging in response to contemporary corporate and market needs. The behavior of this management type is multitasking and adaptive according to necessity.”

What makes a successful middle manager?

We can measure the success of a middle manager on a personal basis by looking at the raises, promotions and bonuses, and in a less quantifiable level, personal satisfaction, respect and positive appraisals.

However, when it comes to measuring their success, as linked to the larger performance of the firm which hinges on their successful occupation of their roles, it can be slightly more difficult to gauge success with profit and sales given how dependent a middle manager’s role is on soft skills, interpretation and dynamic capabilities (notably the skills which an MBA should impart).

“Our recent research shows that, on a personal level, middle managers should be multitasking, ready to accept and cope with change and uncertainty, they should be ‘multilingual’ – able to communicate both upwards and downwards, well informed with regard to their company's internal and external circumstances and able to make best use of any synergies between the two.”

The roles of middle managers are extremely diverse, varying from one department to another, as well as from company to company. Practical advice, therefore, must be individually tailored says Dr Christodoulou, adding that being able to draw on the various elements of the above types as the circumstances demand is probably a good starting point.

The personal characteristics of a middle manager play a large role in strategic behavior, with strategic baladeurs and synthesizers most affected by qualities such as assertiveness. Communicators and implementers are the types most affected by the internal environment – more formalized communicational procedures can limit the scope of the impact a manager can make.

“Finally, one should always be aware of a middle manager’s political behavior as regards procedural justice within an organization,” Dr Christodoulou warns. “If middle managers feel they are being treated unfairly and that they are not engaged as they should, they may develop a shadow behavior that could, at worst, sabotage a project.”

On the frontline: the vulnerability of the middle manager

The dynamic nature of the middle manager’s role, while not without its positives, also sadly means that they are vulnerable to change. In the late 90s, for example, many middle managers lost their jobs as a result of a slew of mergers and acquisitions.

“Middle managers are the agents and the victims of change since they are 'crushed in the middle’,” says Dr Christodoulou. “It seems that they were laid off exactly for the same reasons they were important: their place in a firm’s hierarchy, their multi-task job description, their experience and age.” But this is not the basis for a sob story, he qualifies.

“It is not a matter of being prudent or fair, it is an element of their job's nature, their role's genetic construction if you prefer. They are managers in very neuralgic positions, where elements such as information, authority, and responsibility are disseminated throughout the organization.  Being in such a position, you need to learn and adapt very quickly both for personal and organizational reasons.”

The hazards of being on the frontline, are many – but then so are the opportunities for success. Proving yourself in a middle management role is as good a qualification for a senior management position as you can get – and that, after all, is the ultimate goal of many an ambitious MBA. 

Dr Ioannis Christodoulou joined Westminster Business School as a senior lecturer in business strategy in 2011. He gained his first degree in Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB) in Management Science and Marketing. He then continued his studies, gaining a two-year MBA degree atAUEB and Budapest University of Economics and Public Administration, spending the second year of his studies mostly in Budapest.  Ioannis began his PhD in Strategic Management (2004) atAUEB. He can be contacted here.

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

0 Comments
Click here to Log in or register to share your views on the article.