The “loss of bosses” is coming: what is it and how does it affect the future of work?
In an internal discussion table of the leading global consulting firm McKinsey & Co, which took place exactly a year after the entire world entered the pandemic, that is, in February 2021, it seems to us of interest to reflect from OUR EDITORIAL STAFF, the main aspects that were touched on in this meeting, to consider that a year and a half after it, the main foundations that were addressed are still valid and also continue to be one of the current concerns of organizations and their managers.
What do we mean? To the vital role that many middle managers play in their organizations, and to what we could lose in the near future, even more so considering that organizational structures have been simplified.
This round table was made up of Bryan Hancock, a partner at McKinsey in Washington DC, and Bill Schaninger, a partner at McKinsey in Philadelphia, both experts in talent and leadership, with the third person on the table coordinating the discussion and taking the initiative for the questions, Lucia Rahilly who is editorial director of McKinsey Global Publishing based in New York.
1º) A first focus of the debate refers to “what is changing and what is more of the same”
For this reason, Lucia Rahilly addressed the two participants and told them that after a year of COVID-19, she wanted to refer to the rapid changes in the way companies were organized during this crisis, specifically, the changes in the traditional management hierarchy as more leaders pivoted to a flatter, more distributed, and more agile organizational structure.
And the question was why were the leaders making this change in the organizational structure?
Bryan Hancock claimed that during the early days of COVID-19, leaders made decisions incredibly quickly and with a small number of people, even on big strategic changes like opening new digital channels. Senior leaders started saying, “Hey, we just made decisions in two weeks that used to take two years. Can’t we think about speeding up the organization all the time?” Which determined a second question that contained something deeper: “maybe we can just live with the group of people who make emergency decisions. Many people were not at those meetings. Maybe we don’t need them. Maybe we can have a flatter, faster, more agile organization?”
Of course, the idea was attractive and reflected what was happening in the market. In other words, a tendency to eliminate entire swaths of middle managers and emerge as flatter and faster organizations.
Bryan Hancock also added that they may need to slow down a bit and consider the nuance of what middle managers do most productively on regular times.
For his part, Bill Shaninger went on to say that what Covid-19 had presented as a challenge was very similar to what could be felt after a natural disaster: the need to act quickly to protect lives, livelihoods, the institution. He stated that he believed that he was confusing what it meant to respond to COVID-19, what a natural tendency to massively concentrate power meant, thinking that there is no benefit in having middle management distributed throughout the organization. And this is not so, as Schaninger said that the ranks of middle management have been under constant criticism dating back 25 to 30 years. He says that this time has seen endless rounds of cost cutting, a continual erosion of confidence that what middle management is doing is creating value. And that after about 20 years, many organizations have reached the point where the connective tissue has begun to fray.
Because in addition, what also complicates the situation is that there is currently an emergence of artificial intelligence, machine learning, statistical techniques, tools and approaches that, when implemented well, are excellent decision aids. But at the extremes, people suggest that these tools obviate the need for humans to make decisions. And that’s why he still sees an impulse to ask, “Hey, do we really need those middle managers?”
But he nonetheless believes that despite having allowed himself to devalue human action, when the purpose of a well-performing person in a well-structured middle management position still demonstrates the need for such human action in decision-making.
2º) The difference that makes a good manager
To go deeper, Lucia Rahilly makes the following comment: “this is an interesting point about AI [artificial intelligence] and decision making. In a distributed structure, who empowers frontline workers to make independent decisions and function productively in cross-functional teams? Has training been done to enable this on equipment that does not operate this way prior to the pandemic?”
Bryan Hancock’s position on this is clear, as he says that when we ask about decision making, the manager’s role in training and developing people becomes a key element.
His point of view and the scope of what his position means is very interesting: “take, for example, a leader of a technical competition, whose role is to define learning, shape professional development, add end-of-year comments, not to be a bottleneck, but to adopt the mindset, coaching, supporting, leading.”
Because he contends that when managers spend most of their time coaching and leading, real returns end up being seen. And he says that during COVID-19, people began to realize that additional manager time really did make a difference.
In this regard, Bill Schaninger affirms that the role of the direct manager in performance management is not about the system or the form, but that it helps to understand each person, the value of their work and how it fits into a strategy. more espacious. It’s about training. This is real-time feedback delivered by a human.
That is why we find it interesting from OUR EDITORIAL STAFF that it says that all these elements have been underestimated in organizations, since they have tried to systematize them with data, with systems, with tools. Meanwhile, workers ask for better leaders, better apprenticeships, better training. Since when it comes to disintermediating the role of a good mid-level leader, what is done is at the risk of removing that part of human decision.
Bill Schaninger argued that this path had already been experimented with in the United States by some automakers that had successful autonomous or semi-autonomous teams. They often ran plants, or at least teams, collectively. The teams understood the economics of what they were doing. And the middle managers served as the liaison between different agents, different groups, which really made it work. Where was the problem then? That when leaders rotated and didn’t start with the same premise, the same commitment to the model, things often fell apart. That didn’t mean autonomous or semi-autonomous teams were suddenly a bad idea. It meant that they suddenly had a different mid-level manager who wasn’t committed enough, wasn’t trained enough, or didn’t have enough social capital to pull it off.
From this very interesting debate, from OUR EDITORIAL STAFF we are going to facilitate a synthesis of very constructive ideas for our readers:
– Whether the investment traditionally made in learning and developing social capital and other leadership skills at the middle management level has been on average important.
– The vast majority of corporate training covers onboarding, compliance, and implementation of new products or systems, with relatively little on leadership development.
– Organizations sometimes recognize the importance of the leader and offer training programs for key transition periods.
– A gap may occur once the company has gone through that transition, in clear reference to whether it has been getting enough continuous professional development to help turn that middle manager whose role it is to train and train, into a better coach and leader .
– It’s these cycles of continuous learning and development where you see less funding, less support, and also where you see some innovation coming.
– During COVID-19, since everything went virtual, this is an interesting opportunity to remind people of the difference between training and learning.
– Training often focuses on the work being done at the time.
– Learning is often experiential, has a social component, and is a major part of an organization’s structure.
Other issues to consider arising from the discussion
a) Bring people together
What COVID has challenged is the importance of bringing people together. We will learn over time that this is not a budgeting exercise around training; you can certainly provide cheaper training. It’s about investing in organizational culture and setting standards for how leaders behave and what is expected of them. We probably have to keep that kind of learning separate, otherwise we’ll lose out due to budget shortages.
b) Maintain front-line workers in relation to the decrease in middle management
When asked by McKinsey Editorial Director Lucia Rahilly to partners Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger, how are front-line workers going to develop if middle-management opportunities dwindle? the comments were:
– The fact that you sit somewhere in the hierarchy does not mean that you are not valued.
– The better you are as a manager or mid-level leader, the more impact you will have in not only developing good front-line people, but also attracting them in the first place.
c) Invest in the leaders of the future
Lucia Rahilly was asking Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger what about the next step? How do you assess the leadership pipeline without middle management serving as a test bed?
For both of them, in many of the cases they encountered, the common denominator was the widely distributed organization: physical plants or locations that are diverse and dispersed. An individual may be the most senior person in a location, but in the middle of the overall organizational hierarchy.
That’s a great example of an opportunity to serve as the face of the organization, translating everything into the local context, and providing frontline guidance and coaching day in and day out. It is an excellent test bed to discover who the future leaders of an organization are. Middle managers are part of the fabric of the leadership line. These roles must be coveted, nurtured, and healed, not eliminated. If you want to eliminate something, tasks must be eliminated, tasks that are administrative or bureaucratic and that do not add value. But you have to continue to retain the middle manager role and prepare it to help develop the next generation of leaders in that organization.
One of Bill Schaninger’s most outstanding thoughts
“Middle management is part of the structure of your line of leadership. These roles must be coveted, nurtured, and healed, not eliminated. If you want to eliminate something, eliminate tasks, tasks that are administrative or bureaucratic and that do not add value. But keep the role and prepare to help develop your next generation of leaders.”
What conclusions can we draw for any manager and organization that stops to delve into these aspects
Since each company is a world, never better said something that we always say colloquially. As well as the question that the editorial director of McKinsye, Lucia Rahilly, asked Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger about what is the right thing for an organization, for which we summarize some aspects of interest about the debate:
– When organizations ask staff for the best of each one, especially middle managers.
– This requirement seems to be made in sections, since the way in which organizations determine the correct “control section” for each manager and how many reports that manager must have, is directly correlated with the technical competencies and leadership abilities of said manager. manager.
– Instead of starting with sections and layers, do it based on the basics of a corporate identity. What is your purpose? How are you going to make money, not just today but in the future? How do you want to manage the place? What kind of place do you represent as a company? Once you get the answers to these questions, you can ask how you should organize yourself to get the job done and what the correct leadership distribution of responsibility might be.
– Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger say, if for example, it is an academic company, and the growth of leaders is the business, it will probably drive responsibility deeper into the organization, which means that middle managers will have managerial roles. In general, often economies of scope roles, also with broader scopes. If instead it is an execution company, front-line leaders who participate in training and learning may be prioritized, in which case their task timeframes may be artificially restricted, to create time for those priorities.
The point is that the time slots you assign should come from the role: the type of role, the archetype of the role, how it fits into your culture, what you’re asking people to do. Don’t solve for a number.
Many leaders are talking about and reviewing the purpose and need to serve a broader group of stakeholders than just shareholders
One of the most interesting questions that was formulated in this debate was: what is the interest of a leader in helping middle management find the way forward?
Also the position of the McKinsey partners present in this debate was one of concern for the immediate future and not so immediate, as if we consider the behavior during the next decade. They expect a lot of automation could be seen in areas where top managers and middle managers learn the basics of their trade, such as how to review a particular line item on a financial statement. As AI takes over those tasks, that training ground won’t necessarily exist. You will have a gap, where someone fresh out of college will need to make the leap into a more supervisory role, or one that requires more judgment, more insight. In short: human intelligence.
Thus, the first level of middle management may require thinking and working alongside machines, while also being able to exercise the judgment that normally comes with experience.
How do you get that? How do you build that? And as a leader, how do you refocus what employees do to position the next generation for success? The need to accelerate faster increases the need for training, mentoring, and development in that middle layer.
One of the most outstanding thoughts of Bryan Hancock
If you create middle management roles the right way, you create opportunities for the people in them to thrive. It also creates the ability for them to train and mentor various people below them, so that the next level can rise as well.
Navigating the next phase
The question that Lucia Rahilly asked the audience was then, based on an assumption that one is a leader and is in the midst of an agile transformation that may have been accelerated due to COVID-19. So how can you help anxious middle managers make that change?
Bryan Hancock responded with the simple but quite sensible thought that he would start with a conversation about the expectations of what the role would be in this new reality. That is, what is the role in which you find yourself, but also taking into account the responsibilities of the role.
This implies knowing with which people you have to interact, what is the authority that I have or the one that you do not have. In other words, this is what is being said from management when the expression “this is what we expect you to achieve as a manager” is used.
And then you have to talk very specifically about the jobs that middle manager is expected to do in the next three months, for example, leading a certain product or making sure the team you have has a particular set of capabilities ready to go. Middle managers need to come out of the conversation with clarity about what you want them to do, so that they go from something nebulous to something very tactical that increases their chances of success.
Bill Schaninger also agreed with his ponytail position, saying of course you have to help them get clear on what really matters about their role. And also help them see all the things that they’re currently doing, because a lot of it will be historical, personal preference, or normative: “how we do things here.” And to do many of these things, you would have to stop to build capacity: this means capacity to do a job well, to spend time leading, learning and coaching, to spend time on your own training and personal development. Those are not incremental activities.
How capacity building fits with the goals leaders have set for themselves
– Reduce complexity.
– Drive faster decision making.
– Reduce costs.
Being very clear about the role and the work to be done helps with speed and cost. Organizations can move faster when there is clarity about what a person’s job is and who that person interacts with, when there is no ambiguity about who is responsible for what decision.
And having that focus also confers a personal reward. Because at the end of the day, people want to create that new product, offer that amazing new service, and not go up and down a hierarchy to get approvals.
Role clarity helps with speed, helps align with purpose, and helps with cost when you identify jobs that need to be done, in part because it also helps illuminate jobs that no longer need to be done.
Middle managers need to think about how they personally energize, as well as how they energize the people around them.
One of the most important ways to help people is to not treat their work as a factor that only increases. We add more and more, but very rarely do we help people drop things. Some jobs have become overwhelming, almost impossible to do, and then add the middle managers’ belief that their days are always numbered due to annual cost reductions.
There is something even in the term “middle management” that denigrates the value that people bring in leading team tasks, leading a school, leading a plant, leading the learning and development capacity within Human Resources. Those are all examples of what some people would call middle managers. But they are vital, much more important than the stereotype that, unfortunately, the term middle management might conjure up.