The Middle Level Leader

I recently came across the article “An Email From Elon Musk Reveals Why Managers are Always a Bad Idea” and it hit on some things that I am very passionate about, but I think it left out a different, but important, way of looking at the problem. The good news is that this article  did what it was intended to do and that is, get me thinking. I hope my approach makes you think too, so please let me know what you think.

At the surface, this article and the conclusions within align very well to the old problem of correlation vs causation and unfortunately many people will take it too literally. You can define management and leadership however you want, but to apply those definitions to a role with the same noun in an organization structure (“management” or “leader”) is where we start running into problems. One of our problems is that we have this assumption that “middle management” is just an old concept that we need to get rid of, when instead, maybe we need to redefine it. Could it be that “management” is seen in the same mindset of other antiquated ways of doing things: “well, it’s the way we have always done it.” So instead, let’s reinvent the middle management concept to improve it to align with how business work these days, heck let’s even give it a new name and call it “middle leadership.”

What is middle leadership? Well, think of it this way: Some people can hear a senior leader speak and immediately understand the macro vision and direction of the organization and a then turn around apply it at a micro level to what they do every day and bam, the operations are perfectly aligned with the organization’s vision. If you had a whole company of people who could do that, you have a goldmine and probably do not need any middle level management/leadership. Most organizations will not have this though and it’s not because people do not want to do the right thing to connect to the vision and mission, they don’t know how to.

Consider the over used example of JFK visiting NASA and asking a janitor what his job was and the janitor responding that he was helping put a man on the moon. Seems great and all, but do you think every person in NASA could hear the vision from JFK during a speech and immediately know how their role helps achieve that vision? Personally, I don’t think so. You need middle leadership to help connect the dots, break down the silos and barriers that exist so that way everyone’s role can in fact, support the overall mission or vision of the organization. We are not just talking communication barriers that those same managers create, as Elon Musk suggested in his memo, but instead we are talking about technical barriers, process barriers, cultural barriers, or any other barriers that typical flat or lattice organizations may struggle to solve organically. The problem is, most middle management does anything but these things.

I have spent a good part of my career doing process improvement and change management and I can tell you that individual contributors in an organization do want to do the right thing but they often don’t know how to. I spend more time coaching and facilitating discussions to frame people’s good ideas into action steps more than I really spend solving anyone’s problems like people think I do. So basically, I am doing a middle manager’s job connecting the dots, asking questions, and aligning the day-to-day work to the company’s vision, and inspiring the individuals to improve their job to drive better business outcomes. I do this all because the “middle manager” is not doing it…because they aren’t expected to from their leadership. Now that is a problem.

The lattice organization which was referenced would suggest that an organization who has a “middle management” problem needs to make some changes, one being…wait for it…adding more leaders to replace the managers! Wait, what? If someone actually took this article as is and believed that getting rid of managers would “remove 75% of the reasons people leave the company” and assume that “lack of management” or “lack of leadership” would not become the next highest reason for people leaving, then they are delusional. This is because middle management is not the problem, it is how the organizations are choosing to use these individuals, or not use them, and how the organizations are defining the expectations of the management role. Although it does not explicitly say it in the Musk memo, it is quite possible this is what he was hinting to. I read the memo as defining the expectation of a manager (aka “middle leader”), not suggesting that managers are not important.

Musk said in his memo: “One final point is that managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an “us vs. them” mentality, or impede communication in any way.” So Musk wasn’t saying to get rid of managers, he was defining his expectation of managers. His expectation was that a manager should not be used for information flow and communication. His expectation is that managers should break down silos to allow people to communicate and solve problems quicker. It is basic separation of duties, you can’t have people whose job is to do everything. The problem solvers cannot always break down the barriers to solving those problems and the silo breakers can’t always solve the problems that the silo is preventing people from solving. Far too often though, we expect this, especially from middle management.

We all experience it, the managers  that have too much on their plate and work too crazy of hours to be effective. The HR and organizational processes that put these individuals in these positions put far too much emphasis on seniority or experience when giving promotions. They look for the people with most technical knowledge in an area or who are the best at their job to determine if they should be promoted. Furthermore we continue to let the broken HR systems stay in place and we continue to not have an effective way to find and develop true leaders and strategically move them to areas of the organization that need their skill set the most. This is why your best people are leaving your organization…you are promoting managers and the (future) leaders are leaving. Start promoting leaders instead of managers and maybe your middle level management problem will  go away and be replaced with something more useful to your organization.

Reinvent middle management, create a company with middle leadership.

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