“The distinguishing feature of middle management is not where they sit in the organization chart. What makes them unique is their access to top management coupled with their knowledge of operations. This enables them to function as mediators between the organization’s strategy and day-to-day activities” (Wooldridge, Schmid & Floyd, 2008, p. 1192). Tying strategy to operations is the essence of being middle manager.
This is not only done by merely downward implementing strategy in today’s more entrepreneurial, flatter and knowledge-intensive organisations. Middle managers need also to influence upward, to integrate horizontally and to engage in divergent initiatives. Wooldridge et al. (2008) among others plot these different roles on two dimensions: integration versus diverging and upward versus downward. This leads to four different roles (see fig. 1).
First of all middle managers are strategy implementors. Secondly they can reinforce strategy management as upward information synthesizers. This integrative role in two directions is important for organizational performance (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1997). Middle managers can thirdly be facilitators of adaptability by organizing experiments without too much implication for the top. Finally, successful experiments can be championed upward. This is their fourth role. The two diverging roles, championing alternatives and facilitating adaptability, are particularly important for companies with a strategy of innovation (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1997).
The multiplicity of these roles explains the complexity of the middle management position. Strategically active middle managers have to juggle with different hats. This is not without risks and especially top management needs to recognize and enable the full strategic potential of the different middle management roles. If not, middle managers risk labels as “spin doctors”, who always distort information, “drones” who only think execution, “politicians” who always lobby for their pet projects or “subversives” who undermine continuously strategy implementation (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1996). This is unfortunate as involving middle managers in strategy formation leads to better organizational outcomes (Wooldridge & Floyd, 1990; Kuratko & Goldsby, 2004; Meyer, 2006; Sillince & Mueller, 2007; Mantere, 2008; Conway & Monks, 2011; Huy, 2011).
Figure 1: middle managers have 4 strategic roles (Floyd & Wooldridge, 1994; Wooldridge, et al., 2008)
This brings us to the topic of leadership in two ways. First of all, leadership is a social process of claiming and granting (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). Middle managers can claim leadership in their organisation, but if it’s not granted to them, their claim is without result. Secondly, the middle manager has to become self-authoring in his role. He needs to develop his own plot or as Wouter De Geest (2011), CEO BASF Antwerpen, says: “I want my managers to develop their own story.” Middle leaders are not only target of influence, they are also actors of social change. Leadership from the middle doesn’t have a function description.
Future proof middle managers become middle leaders. They understand that they have multiple roles to play in multiple groups and networks and they have developed their own vision and identity in this complexity: “I’m in charge, I’m the boss, and I have multiple stakeholders to manage.” This identity allows them to be flexible without having the feeling of being torn apart. This different identity also needs different skills: overall emotional balancing and self-regulation (Huy, 2002), issue selling to the top or political skills (Dutton et al. 1997; Rouleau & Balogun, 2011; Ren & Guo, 2011) and transformational leadership behaviours (Stoker, 2006). Effective middle managers have informal power, are versatile, volunteer early, criticize positively and are emotionally intelligent (Huy, 2001; Huy, 2011).
Now that we have defined the role and profile of the future proof middle leader and the need to adopt a leadership mindset, the question that remains for next week is how to develop this?
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