The Real Role of Middle Management

“People join a company and quit a boss.”

 After years in the business of being managed and managing people, I have recently had an epiphany. Simply put, the idea of middle management is either a contrived and bogus concept put forth to justify another level of oversight or a mechanism to keep the average employee on task–believing that they are irresponsible big kids who need ‘adult supervision’. The fact of the matter is that middle management is misunderstood.

Pure and simple, most so-called mid-level managers are ‘individual contributors’ or subject matter experts who, probably, deserve recognition for their contributions over time to the enterprise. Sadly, however, traditional career ladders are stuck on vertical. As a result, we tend to promote these hard working and competent performers to their “level of incompetence” as articulated in the Peter Principle.

Many argue that mid-level managers are responsible for “organizing, directing and controlling” work. Yet, too frequently, these managers are the very reason that work is unorganized, chaotic and out of control. To avoid taking the fall for a work unit’s performance shortfalls, middle managers often introduce complexity, drama and politics into the workplace. Rarely have I seen a mid-level manager’s job description that emphasizes the importance of strategic goal setting, people development and performance management. Their role, simply put, is to deliver output –with little more than ‘lip service’ being paid to how important it is to the bottom line to bring about employee ownership, engagement and development.

Now is the time to ‘re-purpose’ the role of mid-level manager. We need a new type of mid-level manager. We need someone with high emotional intelligence or EQ, with the ability to connect to people and transfer knowledge–while spotting and developing talent. We need middle managers that recognize their responsibility for both business results and people development; we need to acknowledge that the middle manager is the real human resources professional; we need to promote the ideals of real servant leadership versus rewarding the undercover mentality of a ‘snooper visor”.

So, exactly what is the role of middle management? Is “middle management’s” role to show people how to do the work correctly or to monitor the work that is being done—or both? ? Both these tasks are necessary, but not sufficient, to develop talent.

Development of talent should be the most important role of the middle manager. Development of talent involves honing and enhancing the technical skills of the employee, creating a climate of performance accountability and being responsible for sharing insights regarding on the right way things should get done within the larger organization. The middle manager should be a role model for how to work cross functionally in a cooperative and collaborative way. Unfortunately, the middle manager is the “keeper of the gate” for their functional silo. In spite of the lofty statements printed on laminated cards and posted on bulletin boards, middle managers intuitively know that they will be held accountable for one thing—measurable unit outcomes. How they treat, grow and develop their direct reports is, often, of secondary concern.

Rarely does the middle manager want or get upward feedback from their direct reports. As I have been told and observed, most middle managers are ‘stuck up’. In other words, they are concerned only with how their boss perceives them. And, what the boss wants are cold, hard and measurable results. Pity the middle manager that goes to their superior and says, “Morale is low.” In fact, if they want to get the attention of the superior regarding employee engagement, they would say, “productivity is low.” In the minds of too many middle managers, the people part of the equation is completely outsourced to the Human Resources function. Instead of giving struggling employees constructive feedback, they call in their HR hit man/woman. The HR hit man/woman, who by the way has not observed the employee’s performance, parrots what they have been told by the middle manager. Consequently, when the employee is placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP), he/she is told. “HR made me do this to you.” This failure to own up to the performance management part of their job is the critical disconnect between the manager and the employee.

For any organization to go from ‘Good to Great’, the middle manager must be viewed as the key variable. Now is time to move the manager from being ‘stuck up’ to becoming a bit more ‘stuck down’. Put another way, let them know and reward them for not being a custodian of talent—but, more importantly, becoming a developer of talent. The successful organization will re-calibrate for the middle manager the tasks that are vital to its survival and success—that is an engaged, empowered and developed workforce.



Who Plays The Race Card?


The Growing Trust Gap

By Kwame S. Salter

Robin Williams, the brilliant late actor/comedian, once remarked, “Reality! What a concept.” When the discussion comes around to race relations in America, we seem to have a difficult time dealing with the reality of race. On both sides of the racial divide, opinions seem to be set in quick drying concrete. Many whites feel that any mention of race is an attempt by blacks to justify or excuse some action or reaction. On the other hand, too many blacks believe that no white person can be trusted to be fair and objective in encounters between the races. In reality, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Clearly, not every compliant by blacks is frivolous or a blatant attempt to obfuscate by playing the so-called “race card.” And, in spite of the sordid history of social injustices, political disenfranchisement and state sponsored terrorism in the guise of the Klan and other white supremacist groups, many brave and courageous whites have stood up for both our civil and human rights.

The recent phenomenon of rewiring racial injustices to be viewed as something other than reality has been aided and abetted by the talking heads of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh Some whites have a problem with Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and, even, President Obama injecting themselves into race issues. However, more blacks find the right wing rants of the Fox commentators both insulting and a gambit—as they, not so subtlety, use race as both sword and shield to boost their ratings and line their pockets. Jon Stewart, the insightful and comic genius anchor for the Dailey Show ( assembled and dissected a block of videos from these media agitators. After viewing the Stewart video, I am sure you will agree that facts to these guys get in the way of their goal of whipping their fan base into frenzy. While selected and isolated so-called facts are introduced with glaring graphics and amplified by angry guest commenters, the objective reality doesn’t support their position. In their worldview, the only race that counts and should be acknowledged as legitimate is a NASCAR event. Yet still, they raise issues that must either be countered or addressed– not only by blacks, but also all of America.

Issues such as black on black crime and the scourge of vicious black criminal cartels loosely referred to, as gangs must be faced up to and discussed. Approximately 12%-13% of the American population is African-American, making up 40% of the almost 2.1 million male inmates in jail or prison (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009). Crime, whether committed by blacks or whites, has become pandemic in our large urban centers. What are the contributing factors; why is our criminal justice system so efficient in the capture and incarceration of black offenders; and, how many are in prison due to being targeted in the putative War on Drugs? “Too many,” as George Wallace was said to have quipped when asked, “how many blacks are there in America?” But, why are we so protective of so many of the truly bad guys who live in and terrorize our black communities? Is it that we don’t trust the police? Many of the police patrolling these black communities are themselves black. Are these black officers quid pro quo better or fairer than their white counterparts? Some are and some aren’t.

Just recently, a highly commended black Police Commander in Chicago was stripped of his badge and gun while facing two felony charges. This top cop allegedly put his gun in the mouth of a black suspect. DNA test verified the presence of the gun in the suspect’s mouth. By the way, this cop, over the years, had been the subject of many citizen complaints. What comes of the complaints from black citizens against these black cops? According to records, only two citizen complaints resulted in discipline. Is this behavior by a black cop surprising? No, not if you consider that during WWII the Nazi’s used Jewish prisoners as “Kapos” or prisoner trustees to watch over and brutalize their fellow Jewish prisoners. The more brutal these Kapos the more rewarded by the SS Guards. As I pointed out in my piece of Ferguson, what we need is not, necessarily more black officers—but better officers. Attracting, developing and retaining better police officers is the key to tamping down some of the potential of violence by and against police. Having a close relative that was a police officer who was shot and blinded in the course of duty, I know their job is not an easy one. Every split second is over loaded with information and data that must be correctly deciphered—their life and the suspect’s depend on it. This is the reality of the situation.

Having discussions aimed at bringing about positive race relations appears to be a topic that America is not eager to put on the table. America, we have a problem. This is not a new problem; it is not even an isolable problem; still, it is a wicked problem. According to the Australian Public Commission, a wicked problem is one “that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term “wicked” is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil.” Improved race relations in America can be achieved by applying our unique American “can do” attitude. We have a blueprint. That blueprint is the Kerner Commission formed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to understand the root causes of the urban riots that plagued our cities from starting in 1964. Johnson rejected the Commission’s recommendations. Still, the Commission’s findings, known as the Kerner Report were spot on and prescient. The Commission stated that the nation was “moving toward two societies, One Black, One White—Separate and Unequal.” Moreover, the Report warned our country faced a “system of apartheid in its major cities.”

Obviously, we have not heeded the warning. Today, the concentration of blacks in the inner cities remains more fixed than fluid; the predicted racial divide has widened; and, poverty is more structural than generational. We need President Obama to issue a call to action, much like President Johnson did over 40 years ago. Thus, my modest proposal is for the President to create the Biden Commission on race relations. Joe Biden, our straight shooting Vice-President has both the street cred and needed gravitas to lead such a Commission—his 2007 primary gaffe, notwithstanding, of describing Obama thusly: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” I’ve heard worse and Biden has more than atoned for that politically incorrect statement.

Finally, I would also highly recommend that Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh be invited to join this august body. Why not? They always seem to have the right answers.