Lessons from the Past 55: Middle Management - The ‘Lost Tribe’ in the Corporate World
Why is middle management the lost tribe? 
 
Often, when I look at middle management (MM) in the corporate world, I am inclined to describe it as the ‘lost tribe’ of biblical times. They are caught between running with the fox and chasing with the hound. It is a group which is caught between the small, select few from the top management who exercise power, and the large workforce which also exercises power with its numbers. 
 
MM has been loaded with a lot of responsibility, but with limited authority. They are often expected to take the blame when something goes wrong, and sometimes also pay the price. However, they are seldom sought to give the credit when it is due. 
 
One is often reminded of the old, oft-repeated plaint: 
 
‘We the willing,
 Led by the unknowing, 
 Are doing the impossible,
 For the ungrateful’
 
Middle management is like the middle class.
 
Middle management in corporate entities suffers from the same problems as the middle class in societies. The top management is up there, often insulated from the rest. The lowest levels have the power of numbers, and their unions will not allow them to be taken for granted. Middle management is squeezed in between—with neither the authority of the top, nor the muscle power of the populous bottom.
 
Yet, middle management is really supposed to be the classroom, where training and sieving (for future positions in top management) takes place. But does this really happen? If one looks at the number of external candidates being imported to fill senior manager vacancies in the company—and the number of exceptional middle managers who move out seeking and acquiring senior positions in other companies—we know what the answer is. 
 
A good parallel to middle management is the mid-field players in the soccer team. They prepare the way for the front line to shoot and score. They also help to defend and reduce the pressure on the full backs and goalkeeper. Yet, they are taken for granted. They will never get the media exposure like Ronaldo! Yet, if they were not there, there would be no Ronaldo. They are there, and thank God, they ARE there. 
 
Only top management knows best.
 
I jog my memory to go back to 1963, when I was in middle management. I had finished my period as a management trainee in Glaxo and was then posted in the sales department (there was no 'marketing' as a term at that time) as special assistant to the sales director. I decided to expand my job and undertake limited market research to identify new market opportunities. 
 
I developed good relations with the head of R&D (research & development) so we could work together for mutual benefit. As a result of this effort, we could introduce a new drug formulation that was a great success. We also worked on a diversification for a Vitamin A chemicals plant in Maharashtra.
 
Although my boss was proud of me and the achievements of his department, he would not let me expand the working group so that we could achieve more. Instead, in a secretive way but with board approval, he hired a senior manager from another multinational company to head the new official market research division, to whom I would have to report.
 
The new senior manager had experience in selling consumer products, but had no pharma tech qualifications. I ended up tutoring him in pharmaceuticals until, after six months, I lost patience and quit to join another multinational as a senior manager. 
 
I would have loved to stay on; Glaxo was my first job and I was there for seven years, and I loved it. But my senior management, instead of encouraging me and boosting my confidence to generate more successes, only did the reverse. I was being “led by the unknowing...working for the ungrateful.” 
 
Middle managers sometimes/ often caught unawares.
 
When I worked for an American multinational, I had recruited an advertising executive with eight years of experience and convinced him to relocate from Mumbai to the south of India. He was keen to work on the client side, rather than with an agency, and have a new and different experience. 
 
All went well for two years, until the CEO (chief executive officer) one day expressed his unhappiness to me about Suresh’s performance. He wanted Suresh replaced. I felt Suresh was doing his job well and did not agree with the suggested line of action. I had been responsible for uprooting Suresh from his base in Mumbai, and I just could not fathom what triggered the CEO’s anti-Suresh tirade. 
 
When the CEO made the demand for the fourth time, I offered to first resign and go away, and then the CEO could do as he pleased. With such a ‘contrary posture,’ the CEO climbed down and the request was never made again. Suresh remained at the company for many years, even after I had left to take up another assignment.
 
This incident shows how middle management can be caught 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 adversary cannot attack the boss in any direct way.
 
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 US$100 million in funding. Intel and SAP picked some of their highly regarded people to lead this prominent joint venture. 
 
But just three years later, Pandesic was declared a colossal failure. 
 
Why? 
 
Because the people picked to run the project were highly experienced, but they were not the right people for the job. They had stellar resumes, but not one of them had experience in launching a new venture. 
 
None of them knew how to readjust a strategy when the first one did not work. None had the experience to figure out how to make a brand profitable before growing it big. 
 
Pandesic needed people from middle management, who had gone through the cleansing fires of start-up enterprises, rather than suave top management executives who had never handled such fires, or had forgotten such fires existed because they experienced them so long ago!
 
Companies like Unilever keep stirring the middle management cauldron.
 
Middle management is the cauldron where learning and training takes place. Based on how they have managed challenges, the managers are sieved for positions at the top—either existing ones or new ones created from expansion, mergers or acquisitions. 
 
A company that does this successfully is Unilever, where the chairperson has a five-year term, irrespective of his age. Within six months of his appointment, the chairperson also has to submit the names of three potential successors, who will then be closely monitored by the world headquarters. 
 
Such a system creates a certain momentum. Positions are created in top management by a process; this momentum is pushed down to middle management, so there is movement and hope right through the organisation. The continued and sustained growth of Unilever, over the past four generations, is largely due to this advantage.
 
Middle management also has its share of achievers and sustainers.
 
It must not be forgotten that, like in many other groups, middle management consists of achievers and sustainers. The achievers will be only 25%. Every corporation needs to create an environment of comfort and challenge for sustainers, who will not travel very far beyond their current positions. 
 
Yet the company must also create an environment of unrest and challenge for the achievers, who have ambitions of finally moving into the corner office. Doing this is not easy—it needs a lot of thinking and hard work. It is a great balancing act.
 
Politicians find it most difficult to get votes from the thinking middle class. Similarly, companies find it difficult to get the best out of middle management as a group. In order to make this happen, the role of HR (human resources) is far more critical and important than in the past. 
 
In addition, it also needs a 'THC' top management core team to provide the leadership, with an optimum balance of technical, human and conceptual skills, so that there is an alignment of vision and goals right through the organisation. 
 
Thus, we will be able to support the ‘lost tribe,’ and not allow them to be led by the unknowing, and end up with a 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 corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, 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 the time in NGO work.)
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