Control is low. Middle managers face two control challenges. The first comes from the changing nature of work. Twenty years ago managers had to make things happen through people they controlled. Now they have to make things happen through people they do not control. That changes everything. You have to learn a whole new set of skills around influencing people, building networks of trust, managing opaque decision processes and building alliances in support of your agenda. Command and control is over; building commitment is in.
The second challenge is structural. At the top of the firm CEOs have high control: they can allocate resources and set direction as they see fit. They can delegate all the tasks, pressure and stress downwards. Middle managers cannot set the agenda or decide what resources they should have: they have to fight for their agenda and their resources all the time.
Ambiguity is high. Life at the bottom of the management pyramid may be tough but at least the rules are clear: meet this goal by this date and move on. Life in the middle adds a huge dollop of ambiguity to the pressure of work.
Goals are often less clear or even contradictory. As the Japanese say, you have to “read the air” to work out what really matters and to whom. Reading the air encompasses a range of vital political skills, which are never taught: avoiding the Death Star projects and managers; knowing what it really takes to get promoted (ignore the formal HR systems); knowing when to step up and when to step back; getting the right support and sponsorship for your agenda. As a CEO, you escape this political turbulence.
Resources are scarce. Standard operating procedure in the middle is to find that your commitments exceed your resources. And next year the budget will only get tighter. The treadmill gets faster every year. In addition, technology does not liberate us: it enslaves us. This is partly about the expectation of being on call 24/7 to deal with emails and WhatsApp. But technology also raises expectations. For instance, in the days before PowerPoint, presentations were very short because the cost of producing them with graphic artists was very high. Now, managers are expected to produce their own PowerPoint, and there is no point at which it can ever be complete: there is always another fact to find or another viewpoint to canvass.
To survive in the middle, year in and year out, requires deep resilience. Research on resilience shows that people who find meaning in what they do and have a positive outlook are most resilient. Finding meaning and being positive when you are CEO is easier than in the middle. Telling people to be passionate and positive about preparing a VAT return rarely works. Optimism and meaning cannot be mandated from on top; they have to come from within. You have to find your own purpose. Ultimately, we only excel at what we enjoy.
The three challenges of middle management require three unique capabilities: influencing and persuading skills to deal with the lack of control; political skills to deal with ambiguity; and resilience to deal with the pressure of scarce resources. Life at the top looks much easier.
Perhaps the best, and most useless, career advice I was given came from a business school professor who told me: “If you join a consulting firm, join as a partner.” As with much academic output, the insight was brilliant and useless in equal proportions. When asked how to join as a partner, he said “start your own firm”. That remains the dream for many middle managers.
We need to celebrate and support management more, because it is the engine room of success.
Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)