Bill Schaninger is a senior partner emeritus in McKinsey’s Philadelphia office. He is an international speaker, author, and adviser to senior leaders and government officials.
Bryan Hancock is a partner in McKinsey’s Washington, DC, office and one of the global leaders of McKinsey’s talent work.
Emily Field is a partner in McKinsey’s Seattle office. She advises organizations globally across industries to deliver on their performance goals and people aspirations.
Below, Bill, Bryan, and Emily share 5 key insights from their new book, Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work. Listen to the audio version—read by Bill, Bryan, and Emily—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Middle managers are among the most valuable players in an organization.
Managers are key in two parts of what makes businesses work. They’re critical for coaching and developing, making sure that their people have the soft skills that are increasingly required in a world where we’re surrounded by automation and automated tools. It’s those human skills that are most essential and where managers are most important.
Managers are also critical for figuring out value creation. The markets are changing fast, as are all of the ways we can collaborate internally and externally. How we organize to create value is more complex now than it’s ever been before.
When we thought about the years of serving organizations on talent transformations or business transformations, the reason as to whether a company succeeded or fell short of their aspirations was the middle manager. CEOs can set a top-down vision, but middle managers actually make it happen. Moreover, we have found managers have a bad rap, there’s this idea that middle managers are the bureaucrats, that they create work, and we want to disabuse people of that.
Whether it’s knowledge organizations, sales forces, or something else, the manager was one of the key drivers of performance. In addition, the manager was a key difference in how happy people were. These people in the middle are the institutional memory, the marrow, maybe even the soul of the place. When it’s really working well, it’s those people that onboard new employees, it’s those people that pass on the rights and the rituals and the ceremonies. They make the “we” in terms of what makes us a “we.” We must revisit, reembrace, and even celebrate the importance of these roles.
2. Managers must be given the time and authority to focus on their people.
We have not invested in middle management, instead, we’ve made their lives very difficult. Even when people are asked what they spend their time on, they think they should be spending time on planning and administrative tasks, not on developing the workers. However, the thing we need from middle managers the most is the thing they’re least asked to do.
A recent survey showed that middle managers are spending less than a third of their time on people management. What’s happened over the past 20 years is that managers have been increasingly valued for their individual-contributor work, not their management. Given the complexities of the future of work, we need to flip that around, we need managers to get back to managing.
“A recent survey showed that middle managers are spending less than a third of their time on people management.”
Managers have to be very intentional. They have to make the time, have the recurring one-on-ones, and ask people, “What are you working on? What are your goals? What are the things that you want to get better at? What gives you energy? What do you care about?” It’s not about just having that conversation once a year and assuming it’s done. Having those recurring conversations is how you build the relationship. It’s also how you help people explore things that maybe they didn’t even know they were interested in.
During the pandemic, we sent everyone home to work. It was a top-down directive, but how did it actually happen? How did organizations keep closing the books on time and continue driving results for customers? The managers.
If you invest in these managers, you are able to move mountains. However, in many cases, they’re individuals who are burnt out themselves. They’re having their own well-being challenges; they’ve had so much piled onto them. Frankly, their development, their well-being, more often than not, has been an afterthought. Resiliency starts with having a strong middle management team that’s able to really drive, so we need to rethink these roles.
3. Managers and HR need to work together in people management.
In too many organizations, people leadership has been outsourced to HR. If you don’t have good people leaders, HR becomes the last line of defense. What we’re seeing is a world where we need a balance between the manager doing the day-to-day people leading, and HR doing the coaching of the manager, helping provide guardrails for the manager. In too many organizations, the thought process is: people managers aren’t managing their people, so HR needs to step in, or HR needs to be the outsourced leader. However, that just creates unnecessary tension.
Managers have some of the largest impacts on an individual’s well-being, according to research; it’s on par with the impact of a partner or spouse. The role of the manager is absolutely critical, it’s incumbent upon leaders and HR to help managers be great at their job. By creating a level of consistency, the manager brings to life the organization’s values, mission, purpose, and culture.
Where HR and managers can work together is where a really good people manager knows when, how, and why to reach out to their HR counterpart. HR loves nothing more than to coach great people managers against hard people problems; but they need to understand the rhythm of how to work together. Where it works really well is when people managers are trained in what it means to be a good people manager. That means a lot of the tough conversations aren’t outsourced to HR, but are done by the leader. They have regular check-ins with HR to say, “Hey, here’s how I’m developing my folks; here are the patterns I’m seeing; here are the opportunities I’m going to tee up,” or, “Here’s somebody who’s struggling, and here’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Managers have some of the largest impacts on an individual’s well-being.”
If HR knows all of those things, they can help do the gentle course correct to say, “Hey, it’s great you’re doing that. But what about Jamie? Have we been thinking about Jamie? Have we been investing in Jamie? What can we do more for Jamie?” Or, “How can we move more in a different direction with this?” It’s an equal partnership and if we get that balance, the tricky parts can be managed. What senior leaders can do is make sure that there is enough capacity in HR to truly play that talent-advisory role. In many HR organizations, we’re seeing increased shared service, increased self-service, and increased service that things are centralized.
4. Managers should play a critical role in recruiting and retaining talent.
We need to invest in building managers’ capabilities to interview, train, and develop people; for managers to actually be those talent attractors, they need to learn how to do it. When we think about what it looks like to be a talent attractor, it’s about training managers on how to interview and not just how to ask the questions and how to fill out the rubric. It matters what you talk about: Why should you join our company? Why is this a great role? What’s in it for you? This can’t just be boilerplate language that you could find on a website. It’s the role of the interviewer, the hiring manager, to make it personal to the individual and what they specifically care about. Leaders need to reward managers for talent attraction. So often, it’s a side part of the job, quick interviews with no time to do it properly. The reality is that talent cultivation, building the next generation, and finding talent should be a critical part of somebody’s job. And they should be rewarded for it.
First and foremost, the senior leader’s role is selection. Select people to be middle managers who can deliver the brand promise and if they can’t, remove them. Of course, you should try to train them, coach them, everybody deserves these things. However, if at some point, if you realize they aren’t great individual contributors, that’s OK. That’s why you get the unique opportunity to pick who gets to be a leader in your company. Secondly, change the role to make more time to deliver the interaction. Someone who’s got 12 direct reports and is on Zoom with them until ten at night does not have the emotional strength to be there for the people who need it.
Managers need to be those talent attractors within a framework, or within guardrails. If we have managers out all sourcing talent, they may not be thinking, “How do we have the most diverse team? Are we being inclusive? Are we building the right capabilities in the right locations? Does this all hang together in the broader enterprise plan?” While managers need to be those talent attractors, they also need to be powered by a common vision that is set through the people strategy.
5. Managers need to serve as coaches.
As managers are moving from transaction to interaction, they should start spending less time checking and more time coaching. More time coaching means actually understanding what the skills and capabilities of the individuals on their team are, and how to improve them. In particular, they need to develop softer skills that require in-person and direct apprenticeship, coaching, and mentoring. It also means interacting with them on what their individual purpose is. If people feel their purpose is aligned with the company’s purpose, they’re much more likely to stay. The only way to get that alignment is for managers to actually probe and ask the questions. When they do that, they’ll have happier, more empowered teams—more aligned with the mission of the company, and ultimately higher performing.
“If people feel their purpose is aligned with the company’s purpose, they’re much more likely to stay.”
Managers need to shift from annual conversations to ongoing, continuous performance development in the flow of work. If you think about it, not all projects are created equally. Some projects need weekly check-ins because the stakes are high, and the project’s moving fast, but for other projects a monthly cadence works. Whatever you choose, what really matters is a manager and their team coming together to say, “How are we going to make sure that we are a continuous improvement engine, and constantly getting better?” And, “What is the role of coaching, performance management, and feedback in actually making that happen?”
Many people in middle management roles will probably have been raised to believe that performance management is about the process, the form, the annual exercise, and the relationship. While there’s some of that there, the real opportunity is less about the process and administration, and more about the opportunity to grow and develop the people who work for you. That’s the coaching part, getting our heads away from annual exercises, a burden that all the leaders complain about, to, “Hey, I have an opportunity, day in and day out, to make sure these people understand why they’re working on what they’re working on, and to give them coaching on how it’s going and how they can get better.”
When you’re getting that continuous coaching right, the end-of-the-year exercise just becomes a summation and synthesis—because you’ve been doing it continually. The employee’s not surprised, you’re not surprised, it’s seamless and easy. When you’re not doing this, that end-of-year conversation comes with disappointment, sometimes depression, sometimes anger, sometimes loss.
If we empower our managers to ask, “How can I help?” we also have to empower the managers to actually be able to help. That means having the time to help, having the resources that they can, at their discretion, bring to bear. Managers are responsible for the performance of their organization. They can’t be reactive about it. They need to be force multipliers. They need to work with their people to remove roadblocks, to challenge them to achieve more, and to give them feedback, all in the spirit of getting better.
To listen to the audio version read by co-authors Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field, download the Next Big Idea App today: