In this McKinsey “Author Talks” video, partners Bill Schaninger, Emily Field and Bryan Hancock discuss their book, Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work with moderator Lucia Rahilly. They explain why firms should change how they treat and assign middle managers. Often, companies promote technically gifted staffers to “player-coach” roles with no training and without relieving them of skilled work responsibilities or bureaucratic chores. As a result, required “administrivia” tasks often eat up their coaching and leadership time. To solve this, firms should create separate well-defined career paths for great managers and individual “rock stars.”
- Good managers create value and help companies make profits.
- The “player-coach” model splits middle managers’ time.
- Companies should remove “administrivia” from managers’ workload, allowing them to focus on developing their teams.
Good managers create value and help companies make profits.
Middle managers, those below the executive level, but higher in rank than frontline employees, can create value in a company as it automates more tasks. Unfortunately, companies tend to promote people into middle management because of their excellent technical skills, not their ability to lead.
“The relationship with the boss is the most important relationship at work.” (Bill Schaninger)
Instead of promoting the most techy employees into management roles, those jobs should go to great people managers. But, an organization also needs ways to reward those who have outstanding skills, but “shouldn’t be managers.”
The “player-coach” model splits middle managers’ time.
Companies have embraced a “player-coach model,” compelling middle managers to spend more than 50% of their time working as “players,” thus leaving them little time to manage their teams and putting them at risk of burnout.
“We should think of our managers being managers and making sure that they can fulfill that people management obligation first before we fill up the rest of their plate.”
A McKinsey survey showed that in the past 20 years companies have come to value managers more for their “individual contributor work” than for their ability to manage people and teams. Instead of promoting potentially great managers, they use promotions into managerial slots as a mechanism to help people move up in the organization – often moving them into roles whose demands make it harder for them to succeed.
To solve this dilemma, companies need to create two respected, successful career paths: one for “great managers” and one for outstanding individual contributors.
Companies should remove “administrivia” from managers’ workload, allowing them to focus on developing their teams.
In addition to their workload and leadership responsibilities, many middle managers have to deal with excess bureaucracy. Companies often don’t give busy managers any incentive to leave their technically skilled work and focus on employee development.
The term “administrivia” encompasses the paperwork, meetings, processes and reports that managers must complete. One healthcare organization realized that its middle managers were dealing with upwards of 300 requests weekly from corporate headquarters. It reorganized its approach to enable them to drop many administrative tasks and focus more on management.
“Over the past 20 years…managers have increasingly been…increasingly valued not for their management but for their individual contributor work and given the complexities of the future of work, we need to flip that around.”
The pandemic accelerated remote work and compelled leaders to reevaluate how their organizations work. Hybrid and remote work require managers to pay more attention to their teams by checking in with distant members, making sure they are alright and having repeated conversations to build relationships. Thus, the middle managers’ leadership load grew, but most firms never proportionally reduced their administrative work or stopped to check on their well-being.
Managers end up “making plans to do plans…doing reports, doing PowerPoint decks, administrivia, feeding the beast…of paper” when they should be able to prioritize developing their people. Supergrowth companies such as new software providers exemplify how the mistake of promoting “rock star” employees to management positions can lead to failure. One CTO reported that his “biggest regret” was promoting employees with excellent technical talent into management positions. However, such fast growing companies are well situated to develop new incentives for both technical experts and good managers.
“We had unloved, undertrained, undersupported and poorly selected leaders for multiple decades, and it took Covid and the massive phenomenon of the great attrition to say, ‘Oh, hold on, we actually have to…stop and say what can we do differently?”
Companies should encourage people who love managing teams and developing staff talent to continue in that role instead of promoting them up to a strategic level. Companies can change people’s perceptions of middle managers by calling them “people managers,” demonstrating that their work matters, linking their incentives to their team’s development, and giving them the time, autonomy and incentives to do their job, to lead. Organizations that want to develop and retain dedicated middle managers must reward them and “make the role sustainable.”
About the Speakers
McKinsey & Company Senior Partner Bill Schaninger and McKinsey Partners Emily Field and Bryan Hancock are the authors of Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work.