By ANWAR JUMABHOY
If you are in middle management, your wake-up alarm is now blaring.
While you are busy dealing with an inbox full of emails, supervising staff and reporting to your superior, your position could be eroding from under your feet. It’s time to step back and determine if you are about to fall into the sinkhole of a ‘no longer necessary’ position.
It is likely your industry is going through some turmoil or disruption. On a personal level, you believe there will be a number of future career options for you over your 15 to 20-year journey in your industry.
Perhaps you are looking at getting the corner office, with your name on the door and a secretary. Sorry to tell you this: even today, that is a big ask! Realistically though, you have probably wondered if your company or even industry will survive the next 15 years.
Mid-level managers perform a difficult and critical job, but are often underappreciated. Google founder Larry Page saw managers as roadblocks and tried to eliminate them. Laszlo Bock, head of People Operations at Google, was tasked to find out if managers matter.
The findings were significant – good managers not only increased productivity and job satisfaction in their teams but also in the organisation. In other more traditional companies though, mid-level managers typically have to roll up their sleeves and get stuck doing the work and not really managing people.
To add to their woes, mid-management executives are typically customer-facing. This means they are squeezed between the promise that organisations make to their customers and the flawed delivery mechanism of the company that prevents them from doing this.
So they sit uncomfortably, often having to go the extra mile and bend the rules to gain customer loyalty. The best of the executives at this level demonstrate a clear entrepreneurial mindset and a focus on resolving problems. That’s good news for the organisation, as they are able to operate in ambiguous situations.
Often however, mid-level managers are naive and look to their seniors to guide and manage their careers but this seldom happens. Regrettably, the new world is a harsh one; senior managers are trying to hang onto their corner offices and the growing number of middle managers are often jostling to be visible.
How has the world changed?
For large organisations, the world has changed dramatically. Most of these companies have grown out of entrepreneurial roots that are long forgotten as the organisation grows in size and complexity. Rules, policies, standard operating procedures, limits of authority are put in place and slowly the tangle of red-tape and bureaucracy (what we call ‘corporatisms’) envelop the corporation.
Most ‘old-world’ companies have expanded their core product or service offering over the years. This is because it was a convenient ‘bolt on’ and customer acquisition costs were low.
Banks, for example, moved from deposit taking and lending, to foreign exchange services, money remittances, payment gateways, and credit cards. There was a time when relationships were deep and customers were less cost-sensitive. Times have changed.
Customers are smarter and under more pressure to manage costs. They have easier access to information and can effectively unbundle their needs and shop around for the best deals.
To match their needs, more focused entrepreneurial companies are emerging and they are nibbling away at the service offerings of banks. Perhaps like hunters, they select their prey and focus on the kill!
Big game hunters target old-world companies
There is an interesting parallel that today’s large companies have with the African lion, elephant, leopard or Cape buffalo – the four big African game animals that are the target of modern recreational hunters.
In 2015, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer made headlines when he used a modern steel crossbow to shoot dead Cecil, a black-maned lion in Zimbabwe. Big game hunters enjoy the thrill of seeking out large animals with their modern firearms accompanied by local guides.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs enjoy the thrill of creating successful companies, often serving new markets, but many times disrupting the feeding ground of the large ‘old-world’ companies. It is no wonder that many ‘old-world’ companies are looking for strategies to make themselves more agile, responsive and innovative, in an attempt to emulate entrepreneurs.
How severe will technological disruption be?
We are already seeing the way that Uber is disrupting taxi services globally, with incumbents hunkered down behind regulatory shelters. Most of these regulatory shelters will fall away in the face of demands from customers, as well as drivers who want the flexibility of working without the hassles of applying for permits and complying with requirements that have little relevance in today’s world.
The United States (US) logistics sector is at the most risk, with estimates of potentially six million professional driver job losses (taxis, buses, fork lifts, prime movers, etc.) over the next two decades, from driverless vehicles and drone deliveries.
This would coincide with the time that many of today’s mid-level managers will be looking to end their careers on a high. That will not happen if the industry implodes! Even if all the jobs don’t disappear, they will certainly change as will the demands for managers.
In their recent book, The Second Machine Age, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan professor, Erik Brynjolfsson and MIT scientist, Andrew McAfee paint a bleak future for jobs in several sectors. They say that because of technological advances, starting from the year 2000, job growth and economic growth have been decoupled for the first time in history, a reflection of the power of new technologies. The bottom line: You don’t need more jobs for economic growth.
Automation, robotics, and the Internet of Things, which allows machine-to-machine communication, will displace millions of jobs in logistics, warehousing, research, telemarketing and many other industries. Employees and managers need to be on guard as there is not going to be any job security for the millions of people in these sectors.
Even in the medical industry, new technologies make many current labour intensive tests irrelevant, particularly the mundane sample collection activities. Many of these procedures will be carried out automatically by devices inside or attached to our bodies. No longer will it be necessary for you to have someone take your weight, blood sample or blood pressure reading.
What will happen to these jobs and the mid-level managers who are involved in managing them? Well, they will disappear. In this changing landscape, how do mid-level managers prepare themselves? Should they pursue more domain expertise, when in fact their domain may cease to be relevant?
What domain expertise do you develop?
The million-dollar question for the mid-level manager is this: Is it worth spending time to become a domain expert?
Consider the Uber business model, which does not rely on domain expertise of the roads. Typically, the London black cab drivers take two to four years of training, and need to pass the exam before they can pick up a passenger on the street. With Uber, training can be as short as two hours! Consider how many service and support personnel are involved in the training and testing of London cab drivers. Soon, none of these people will be required.
Mid-level managers need to think beyond their domains, to skills that will outpace technology and that are relevant across multiple domains.
According to Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne:
“Around 47% of total US employment is in the high risk category. We refer to these as jobs at risk, i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.”
What will become of mid-level managers, who by then will perhaps have just 10 years until retirement and won’t be able to find suitable alternative employment?
All middle managers have developed transferable skills, but they are often hard-pressed to list them. So it is important to catalogue these skills and their application.
Take a step back to step forward
It’s far better to make a change when you are not yet at senior management, have fewer commitments and allow yourself a longer runway to launch a 20-year career.
Making that decision is not going to be easy as technology advances are going to rapidly erode industries, so you need to take some time for a long, hard think about the future.
Defining and building your brand is critical
Just as great companies have brands, so do great people. Little is taught to executives about developing your personal brand. Getting your brand right, consistent and being able to broadcast it effectively is an important skill for managers.
Leadership courses are reserved for senior managers and executive are sent for functional training programmes. Middle managers often get the short end of the stick, not being able to find suitable programmes, or even getting the opportunity to take time away from their desks.
What do people think of you? Are you approachable, capable? Do you accept challenges? Or are you a dodger, always trying to get out of doing things and not taking responsibility? Do you command respect and are you able to effectively raise issues with your superiors?
It’s not about how you dress, although in the Silicon Valley, new entrepreneurs are adopting the ‘all black’ ala Steve Jobs. All executives need to know how they are perceived and work to establish a consistent personal brand that resonates with their personal values. Decide who you want to be.
Very few careers follow a straight-line trajectory. There will be setbacks, poor reviews, project failures, and difficult bosses who will derail your career ambitions. You need to recognise these turbulent winds and deal with them in an effective manner, so you can learn to ‘course-correct’. In the aviation industry, this is known as dynamic stability.
What’s dynamic stability?
A term used in the aviation industry to describe an aircraft’s ability to respond to disruptive weather forces and actively correct to maintain the prescribed flight path. To do this effectively, you will need much more than domain expertise.
The American Management Association has a great definition of critical skills for the 21st century. They call the 4Cs:
- Critical thinking (and problem solving).
- (effective) Communication.
- Collaboration (and team building).
- Creativity (and innovation).
These four skills actually dovetail well with the nine ‘entrepreneurisms’ or traits of successful entrepreneurs that Srikrishna Vadrevu and myself have identified in our book Beyond Corporate Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurship as a Management Practice.
The nine traits are:
- Persuasiveness (communication and collaboration).
- Innovation (critical thinking).
Mid-level managers would do well to identify with some of these traits that can also become part of their personal brand.
In speaking with employers, we hear of the need for what we would term as life skills; problem solving, the ability to work effectively in teams and the ability to multitask.
Our advice to mid-level managers is to work on your brand, build and catalogue your skills (teamwork, communication, working with ambiguity, leadership and flexibility). We wish you well. You are on an interesting and perilous journey, so look to achieve dynamic stability!
To engage him for your organisation, email us at email@example.com. For more Hard Talk articles, click here.
Reposted with permission on Leaderonomics.com.
Anwar (left) and Srikrishna Vadrevu are authors of Nine Entrepreneurisms: Management for a VUCA World. They are also faculty trainers with Leaderonomics.