Saving the Middle Manager: Interview With Consultant Jacob Spilman

Jacob SpilmanJacob Spilman has been a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Employee Assistance Professional in private practice in Portland Oregon since 2001. He specializes in working with executives and middle managers, providing career coaching and skill development.

Jathan Janove: What’s your definition of “middle manager”?

Jacob Spilman: A middle manager implements the executive suite’s strategy and provides oversight of other middle managers or front-line workers. Some folks compare middle managers to the transmission of a car, providing energy and movement for the executives who are in the driver’s seat. But this is incomplete. The middle manager is also the eyes and ears of the executive suite. I think a better way of looking at it is that middle management is a conduit of power and information from the executive suite to the line workers and an information conduit from the line workers to the executive suite.

Jathan: What are the most common challenges middle managers face?

Jacob: Middle managers have lots of responsibility, demands, and sometimes conflicting demands from multiple stakeholders from both the top and bottom of the organization, and limited resources in terms of time, personnel and materials to implement their mission and objectives. Inevitably, middle managers are only as effective as the executive suite that strategically invests them with the power to get things done.

Jathan: What are the typical effects?

Jacob: I see a lot of middle managers who come to my office anxious, depressed and often burned out because they blame themselves for not having the personal power to push their projects to successful completion. More often than not, they will sit on and hide information about their lack of progress instead of reaching out and collaborating with the folks in the organization who actually have the power to remove the roadblocks or find the resources they need. The first lesson that middle managers need to learn is that they are not the mission, they are the messenger.

Jathan: What steps do you recommend middle managers take?

Jacob: First, the middle manager has to make sure that he is aligned with the mission and goals provided by the executive suite so that he’s not trying to swim against the current. Having a close enough relationship with the powers-that-be is necessary just so that they understand the context of their decision-making. Second, the middle manager has to understand that there is a difference in how they communicate a problem and its solution to the different layers of the organization. So, if you are sending the message to the executive suite (even if you are sending it up the chain of command through a supervisor who is a middle manager), you have to present your case in terms of corporate strategy. If you are talking to middle managers and line staff, you have to talk implementation. Finally, the employee has to realize they are playing the role of middle manager. This means that when people are communicating with you, they are relating to you through your role.

Jathan: What advice would you give senior executives regarding how to maximize the effectiveness of their middle managers?

Jacob: Executives will sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that their job consists solely of strategizing. Somehow, implementation is beneath their pay grade. When you indulge in this fantasy, the executive suite becomes isolated and out of touch. HP had it right in the early days. There really is no substitution for Management By Walking Around. Unless you have an intimate knowledge of what challenges your people are up against, middle managers, line staff and customers included, your strategy will just reflect your fantasy about what the numbers mean. There is no substitute for your personal observation.

Second, encourage and reward all the levels of your organization to report bad news quickly. It’s very easy to create a culture where employees will not bring you bad news because they perceive they work in an organization where the messenger bearing bad news will be shot.

Finally, reorganizations have become commonplace since the mid-1980s. Most companies use some form of downsizing or right-sizing to accomplish their goals. Typically, a middle manager will face the expectation of an annual 10-30% increase in their workload. Let’s assume a middle manager starts his job at age 30 and manages to successfully increase his production 10% annually until retirement at age 67. His workload would double every five years. At retirement his workload would be 470% of his original job.

The 10-30% growth rates we typically see are usually only achieved by companies that are in the start-up or growth phase of their development. So, competent middle managers in mature companies will understand the futility of these projections and will focus their work only on those tasks their supervisors consider essential for the success of their department.

At the end of the day, the middle manager winds up thinking strategically about his survival rather than focusing on how his responsibilities actually contribute to the organization’s mission and objectives.

In this climate, middle managers survive because they have created a ring of political relationships around them that have more realistic expectations in their production metrics. Typically, these mutual support groups will create the illusion that everyone in the department is doing their job according to the new unrealistic metrics. So, numbers get massaged, critical information doesn’t get back to the executive suite in a timely way, and the executive suite winds up in an ivory tower. This gets even more complicated when employees use these political relationships for their personal use to create little power fiefdoms. Inevitably, these fiefdoms create the bottlenecks that slow down or even deadlock the changes the executive suite tries to implement. So, the executive suite has to be scrupulous in breaking apart these ad hoc power structures in their organization.