Redefining the middle manager's job

September 19, 2011: 10:44 AM ET

Almost by definition, middle managers have a rough time of it. But more companies are looking to make better use of these managers by giving them more time to coach their staff members.

By Gary M. Stern, contributor

FORTUNE – Imagine the plight of the middle manager. She's trying to please her bosses, interpret their messages and convey them to her staff, meet financial targets, give consistently tricky performance reviews, and grapple with ever-changing goals. Talk about being caught in the middle.

As middle managers' workloads have intensified, their ranks have dwindled. In the mid-1990s, many companies decided to lay off their middle managers. According to Manager Redefined by Towers Watson consultants Tom Davenport and Stephen D. Harding, cuts in supervisory positions in 1994 accounted for 18% of layoffs even though managers made up just 8% of the workforce.

Overwhelmed by responsibilities, never having enough time to do the work, the middle manager's job at many companies became too complex for anyone to handle. At the same time, companies often promote their best performers to managerial roles, and there's no guarantee that these workers possessed the right skills to succeed.

In a 2010 Towers Watson study of 20,000 global employees of large firms, 48% of the respondents said their immediate manager didn't have enough time to handle their responsibilities or possess the right skills to improve poor performers.

In response,  Davenport and Harding have proposed several changes in how middle managers should operate. Davenport describes the most effective style of leading as "offstage management." Offstage managers focus on "managing the environment, not the people." The old-fashioned manager hovered over the employee, often lapsed into micromanaging, operated autocratically and ruled by fear.

The offstage manager operates more like a theatrical director. "The director creates an environment for everyone to succeed and then steps out of the way,"Davenport says.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle, says middle managers are in a "sandwich situation."  They're squeezed between the interests of upper managers and employees.

Amabile says the most effective middle managers provide clear goals and explain how individual efforts contribute to a purpose. They also give their staffers the autonomy and support to do their jobs.

In the past, middle managers mainly served as tools for senior executives to pass along information to subordinates. The communications revolution at work over the past two decades has vastly changed that part of a manager's job.

These offstage managers may have more contact with employees than the old-fashioned autocratic managers, but the communication "creates the circumstances for individuals to work with high independence," says Davenport.

For offstage leaders to do their jobs well, companies must hire differently. Rather than naming the best producer as a manager, more companies ought to hire managers that understand how to handle conflict. "You can't send a manager to empathy school," Davenport says.

Southwest Airlines' (LUV) managers, for example, train baggage and gate staff to know exactly what to do if planes are late or other problems arise.  Hence, the offstage manager provides the tools for employees to solve problems on their own; the manager doesn't have to be there to lead the way. Provided with these resources, the Southwest employees know how to keep the planes moving, which in turns helps Southwest boost its business.

Cisco (CSCO) made major changes in how their middle managers operate, says Davenport, who consulted for the company in 2010 as part of Towers Watson. Previously, most Cisco managers spent about 25% of their time managing staff members and 75% of their time writing code or doing software-related work. When Cisco managers went through training in 2010, they realized they didn't have enough time to manage their staff. So Cisco changed the nature of the job and created its own certification program to train managers based on this new approach.

"You can't be a player coach and win. Most player coaches lose," Davenport says.

Cisco changed how their middle managers did their jobs, and they now spend 75% on managing others and only 25% of their time keeping their pulse on software. By having managers focus on managing, Cisco boosted its productivity and retained managers and staff longer, Davenport says. However, that didn't prevent the company from announcing plans to lay off 6,500 employees this summer as part of a larger reorganization.

Several years ago, Autodesk, a San Rafael, Calif.-based producer of design software, performed customer research on what skills its highest producing sales managers possessed, says Brian Cloughley, Autodesk's director of sales training. The research showed that managers who spend four hours per month coaching each sales employee generated the highest revenue for the company. Autodesk redefined the job so managers could focus on presales planning and how to close deals with their customers.  In the past, managers spent most of their time selling and only paid a limited amount of attention helping other employees.

Autodesk now hires managers who are able to "collaborate, listen, and understand client concerns," Cloughley says. Many of the manager position's more burdensome administrative tasks were automated, freeing middle managers to coach others.

"The managers that clear obstacles and encourage staff create a Pygmalion effect. That's the influence expectations have on performance," Davenport says.

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