Hooray for Middle Managers!

Edition: July 2002 - Vol 10 Number 07
Article#: 1285
Author: Repertoire

When most people hear the term ''middle manager,'' they conjure up an image of a bunch of tired, unimaginative slackers. But is that an accurate perception? In its June 10 edition, Fortune's Anne Fisher interviewed Tom DeMarco, a principal of Atlantic Systems Guild, a New York- and London-based consulting practice, and author of, Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency. DeMarco has a different take on middle managers. Here's some of what he was quoted as saying.


''In healthy, growing companies, the role of middle management is what I call reinvention, meaning the ability of a company to change, to adapt itself to new market realities. This process, which is essential to the survival of any company, really takes place mostly in the middle, where people have a little power and a broad perspective.


''Look at the companies that have cut the most middle managers–AT&T being the saddest example. They've destroyed their own ability to reinvent themselves, and consequently they are just shrinking away. AT&T used to own telecommunications, and now look at them, they're barely breathing. Kodak is a very similar case. This is one reason why I say that successive waves of layoffs are a sign that top management hasn't got a clue. When you see a struggling company that responds by simply slashing headcount again and again, it's an indication that it's time to keep the middle and get new management at the top.''


As to the image of the harried middle manager, DeMarco offers this explanation:


''The real underlying cause of overwork in most companies is that managers take too much on themselves, more or less voluntarily, because they know that the least busy people are candidates for the axe. So they load themselves up with a lot of stuff that should be done by the people below them.


''Managers who 'just manage' are seen as dispensable, so a sales manager will take on 10 or 12 of his or her own accounts. But once you've demoted yourself back to the sales staff, the real loss is management: You're too busy to do much of that! And without any real managing going on, a company loses all ability to steer itself, much less reinvent itself. Top management needs to change that culture that values ''busyness'' for its own sake and recognize the value of what managers do-hiring, motivating, and retaining people, and helping everyone generate ideas.''