Everyone, it seems, wants to be a leader. But a middle manager? That’s rarely an aspiration heard in the workplace or during goal-setting exercises.
Talent-starved companies are trying to change that, saying the middle layer of management has been most acutely hit by a labour shortage in the organized sector.
A survey recently released by staffing company TeamLease shows that employers plan to make the largest number of hires this quarter in middle management—an increase of 10% over last quarter. And last week, Futurestep, the middle management recruitment division of Korn/Ferry International, announced plans to launch in Mumbai and Bangalore, after Futurestep India’s office in Gurgaon recorded 300% growth over the last 18 months.
“In emerging markets, recruitment is still very immature,” says Tim Nelson, president of Futurestep Asia Pacific. “There’s a gap in the market for mid-level managers. You have everybody competing for the same people.”
The gap results from workers, who previously would have been promoted after three, five, seven years, leapfrogging positions and heading straight into senior roles.
Some also shun middle management as too low on the corporate food chain, displaying an overconfidence that might perhaps be masked by a booming economy. “We have a very ambitious generation,” Nelson says. “Title is very important, brand is very important. Employers are being held to ransom.”
Redefining the middle
A podcast called The Cranky Middle Manager Show defines the middle layer as “stuck between the idiots that make the decisions and the morons who won’t do as they’re told.”
Crass, perhaps, but partly true, concedes Jyotika Dhawan, the director of Helix-HR, a human resources consultancy. “It’s pretty sad,” she said. “Responsibilities fall to the top management and the delivery is through the juniors. Middle management is all about people management. At the end of the day, it’s the middle manager who bears the brunt, from top line to bottom line.”
But, if workers are encouraged to see middle management as the meat or cheese of a sandwich—the best part—they might come around. When a 24-year-old was promoted at Bharti Airtel, Dhawan recalls that his seniors made sure he understood how important his role was. He was offered regular mentoring and brought into monthly strategy meetings. “A prestigious forum,” Dhawan adds.
Whether they become team leads or account managers, young workers are finding that they need to negotiate several conflicting factors at once—managing up, managing down, respecting elders while also guiding them. Gurpreith Kalra, a 26-year-old manager at a large telecommunications company, says he tries to play it cool. “I am not going to shout wisdom at you from the mountain tops,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m not a teacher, I’m not a trainer. I am more of a peer.”
Often, the way to satisfy people in mid-level management is to dangle possibility and potential before them, so they never feel stuck.
Futurestep handles people with three to 12 years of experience, country director Asim Handa says, although the so-called C level, such as the chief financial or technology officer, at small firms is also fair game.
Even people who are not technically managing but have some special skill are fodder for recruitment.
In India, the company’s strategy is to scout recruitment firms for acquisition, as well as increase recruitment by volume; Wal-Mart, for example, is its biggest customer in the US. Similarly, Futurestep officials say, they have single Indian clients who demand hundreds of sales managers or account executives that fit the profiles of middle management.
At the end of June, Anand Deshpande, the founder of a Pune-based software company, Persistent Systems Pvt. Ltd, plans a recruiting trip to Seattle. There, among the songs and dances at the Brihan Maharashtra Mandal convention, Deshpande will set up a table and try to lure Indian emigres back home. In the US, associations for regional expatriates typically hold their annual conventions at this time of the year.
Deshpande says the meets are also evolving into a place where Indian-Americans swap job advice and opportunities.
Non-resident Indians (NRIs) who have been star performers in companies overseas, are among those he is tapping for middle management.
Previously, he observes, NRIs were returning only for very senior positions—but they now recognize the value of being on the front lines of the economic boom. India, he says, can offer them management lessons impossible in the US. “There, even the fairly senior people do not have adequate experience in running large teams. The teams in India are much larger,” says Deshpande. “They are predominantly individual contributors, who have spent time on an H-1B visa. They are very valuable,” he adds.
The H-1B visa allows holders to stay in the US for six years, after which they must either apply for a green card or return home. “We train those guys and let them manage teams of 40 people,” Deshpande says.
Domestically, Deshpande says workers are being promoted a lot sooner than they should be. Does he do that? “All the time,” he laughs. “You just ask people to step up. Those who don’t, fall away.”
Do and don’t for first-time managers
Go slow on change: There’s no need to use all the newfound power immediately. Change things gradually.
Find a work style: Figure out what works for your team—do team members like to be given the bigger picture and be left alone, or do they prefer checks and reviews? Mould your leadership style to bring out the best in each team member.
Listen, and learn:Downward communication is crucial. Have informal get-togethers to find out more about your team, and their lives. Listening is important, advising is not.
Review regularly:Monthly or fortnightly appraisals help highlight the team’s performance and action plans. They also provide the opportunity to give formal feedback without sounding biased.
Spare the rod:Use authority in moderation. A direction given as a request is a managerial type of understatement. If the response is not forthcoming, you can add a bit of authority.
Guard your temper: Avoid shouting matches, and even criticizing a junior in public. Mild irritability, or lighter moments with the team, are, of course, acceptable, otherwise you might appear less than genuine.
Do delegate: To get it right, you don’t always have to do everything yourself. It is important to learn to delegate the right work to the right people to empower effective teams.
Communicate effectively: Employees feel demotivated if they don’t know what’s going on and feel no one’s interested in what they have to say. Good communication can improve the performance of your team and business.
Work on presentation:What is being said is as important as how it is being said. Now that you will be showcasing your team’s performance to the top management, it is essential to learn skills of effective presentation.
Do some homework: Understand the business objectives, balance sheets, vision, mission and goals of the company in detail. Your team should feel that you understand the business and its working well. And, better presentations to the management would also help in relating your team’s performance to the overall business goals.
Source: Helix-HR, an HR design and resourcing company