In Praise of Middle Management

The two toughest transitions.

Middle management often get the blame for things going wrong in the organisation. Silo behaviour happening because department heads don’t play nice with each other; Turf wars; Filtering the flow of downward communication because of lack of clarity; Filtering upward communication to keep bad news from the top and make things look good . . .

The list goes on.

Years of working with managers at all levels around the world has brought me to a realisation that the “issues” with middle management are just the symptoms, not the real problem.

The real problem?

The two toughest transitions of leadership:

The first and the last.

An organisation is like a concertina. If you push or pull from the top or the bottom, you create an effect at all levels.

The best individual contributor is often promoted to be the leader of the team, thus creating an emotional attachment to the reason for their success.

If they do not learn the changes they need to make in moving from being an expert individual contributor to a manager of people, they tend to remain “the expert”. Instead of a focus on passing on expertise and developing subordinates capabilities, they hold on to it and use it to solve their direct reports problems for them.

As a result, they do not have the time to step up and act in their peer group or have time to do the strategic thinking required, smelling the horizon, evaluating what has to be developed in their unit to meet the needs of the organization in the near and further future.

And when a manager is operating at a level too low, they pull down the leader above them. Equally when a higher level manager is promoted and does not shift up, they push down the people beneath them.

So the real problem is with the two toughest transitions in leadership. The first one, and the last one. If these go wrong you are either pushing people down from the top, or pulling them down from below.

The First Transition:

Individual Contributor to Leader of Individuals.

The habit most organisations exhibit is to promote the best individual contributor on the team to be the team leader. Promoting them because of their expertise and performance in personal proficiency.

The Work Value

The primary work value for individual contributors is to achieve results through personal proficiency.

The primary work value for a leader of individuals is to achieve results through others.

The Organisational Habit

We have an emotional attachment to the reason for our success, our expertise. It defines us. “I did this and was successful, so if you too do it this way, you will be a success.”

There is rarely any conversation about what is expected from you as a leader of people, what changes you need to make, and how you should be using your time, expertise and knowledge differently; in line with the work values of your new role.

The Belief

I am now in charge. Responsible for the results. And these people beneath me are not as good as me. I can’t take the risk of delegating to them.

The Result

We have instantly created The Manager As Expert.

The time stressed, overworked manager who consumes huge amounts of time solving the problems that subordinates bring to them. handing out solutions, what to do, how to do it. Constantly nagging at those who do not deliver, wasting more time on repeated performance discussions,while nothing changes. Deploying their assets, (Time, Knowledge and Values) to no return.

The Missing Bit

The leader is responsible for delivering the results AND their equal responsibility with that is to ensure the continued success of the organisation by developing the leadership abilities beneath them.


The Last Transition

Function Leader to Board Level Leader 

As you move up through the organisation the team you are part of changes. The higher you go the more important the peer leadership team you are part of is. When you transition to a global board, you are the CEO’s team. And he/she needs a cohesive and collaborative team just as much as any manager lower down the organisation does.

The Work Value

The primary work value of a senior leader of leaders is to do what needs to be done for the good of the organisation. Embracing ambiguity as something that can help.

The Organisational Habit

When asked what team they are part of most managers talk about the team beneath them.

The Belief

I got to this position because of how I operate. My current style of leadership is the reason for my success.

The Result

A dysfunctional “team” who gather for board meetings and waste time and energy fighting for the position and turf of their subordinate team. Pulling in different directions instead of uniting across the organisation and setting the tone for an effective matrix beneath them.

The Missing Bit

When you are on a global board your peer team, the CEO’s team, is more important than the functional team beneath you. You wouldn’t be up there if you didn’t already have the ability to deliver the business results but operating in a senior peer team requires different behaviours from leading the business unit beneath you.

A CEO does not decide strategy and direction in isolation. Frequently it is a consultative process involving all the functional heads on the board. You need to look at situations from the perspective of what is best for the organisation overall, not just the division or department you lead.


The CEO’s View

In my first conversation with CEO’s I ask what they want to see different as they look down the line of leadership beneath them. The answers are always the same.

  • Stop getting bogged down in the detail.
  • Spend more time on strategy.
  • Develop the capability of their direct reports.
  • Build the leadership potential under them.


If the first and second transitions don’t achieve this, the middle management can’t.


This article was first published on the ICF global blog

About Tony Latimer

Master Executive Coach in Singapore and Asia to Leaders in Transition. Bringing Profitable Leadership to international organizations. Expert management and leadership coaching skills training. Co-Author of The Handbook of Knowledge Based Coaching: From Theory to Practice & Coaching in Asia: The First Decade.