COVID-19 is impacting all of us in ways we see and in ways we don’t see. One of those is that we’re all building new skills in working and managing virtually. That’s going to mean that the physical presence of managers will matter less and we’ll need less span-breaking managers of managers – middle managers.
Recall Charon, Drotter and Noel’s Leadership Pipeline levels:
- Enterprise Leader (CEO)
- Group Leader (span-breaker)
- Business Leader (general manager)
- Functional Leader (department head)
- Leading Leaders (span-breaker)
- Leading Others (supervise tasks)
- Leading Self (front-line worker)
Every enterprise needs an enterprise leader managing the whole and general managers looking across functions at the business unit level. Departments like R&D, production, distribution, sales, marketing, finance need department heads with functional expertise, supervisors supporting, monitoring and adjusting front-line workers’ tasks, and the front-line workers who perform the tasks.
But those managing groups of businesses or groups of managers exist only to make life easier for enterprise and functional leaders. The mass adoption of Internet-enabled communication tools has made it easier for enterprise and functional leaders to manage greater and greater spans of control. Now, COVID-19’s social distance imperatives have forced everyone to learn new ways of communicating and managing. That enduring change will minimize the need for those middle managers.
It’s not that the work of middle managers will go away. It’s just that new ways of working will make it easier for others to do the work and manage the work. Think in terms of processes, programs, projects and tasks.
Enterprise and business leaders, whether their titles are CEO, President or General Manager, don’t actually produce anything themselves. Instead, they own strategic, organizational and operational processes that direct and guide others’ work. The most effective leaders engage with, monitor, and adjust these processes on a quarterly basis.
Programs get nested within processes. The 2021 Ford F-150 Truck is an example of a program. These tend to run for extended periods of time, getting monitored and adjusted monthly. Instead of having program-dedicated middle managers, assigning a functional leader as program manager can be a great way for that functional leader to work across functions and broaden their leadership skills.
Projects are the working components of programs, getting monitored and adjusted weekly. Engine design, dealer pricing and consumer marketing are all examples of projects within the F-150 program. Instead of having project-dedicated middle managers, having first line supervisors manage projects can enable them to broaden their leadership skills.
Tasks are the real work of projects, programs and processes, getting performed, managed and adjusted at least daily.
The point is that others can do all the work middle managers are currently doing.
Implication for enterprises
As you’re looking to retrench or shift your business in the wake of COVID-19, look hard at eliminating swathes of middle managers. Others can leverage new ways of working to manage more people and can pick up the work of eliminated middle managers.
Do separate the roles from the people. Accelerate promotions for your high performers ready to get promoted. Find other roles for your high performers not ready for promotion – perhaps having them pick up some program or project management. And help your poor performers ease into roles at other enterprises.
- Take a hard look at your business and determine if it can and should survive. If so, determine whether your current strategy still holds and you can pause to accelerate, or whether you need to manage through a point of inflection, jump-shifting your strategy, organization and operations all at the same time.
- Use that strategic re-look to determine which programs and projects are most important.
- Re-deploy your resources, including middle managers, to those programs and projects.
Implication for middle managers
Be afraid. Be very much afraid. If your role is essentially span-breaking, it’s untenable. Expect it to go away in better-managed, more forward-looking enterprises. And expect the less well-managed, less forward-looking enterprises to go away in their entirety – along with your role.
The only defense is to make yourself personally invaluable. Make sure you are contributing to projects and programs in ways others cannot do. And make sure you can contribute to future projects and programs by strengthening relationships, knowledge and skills on a continual basis.