Middle managers: problem or the solution?

Posted on 8 Feb 2017 by The Manufacturer

To create an environment of shared knowledge and engagement, Dominic Lutterloch urges support for middle managers through the development of a coaching culture based on a thorough, organisation-wide strategy.

In ‘Understanding the Puzzle’ (Lloyds Banking Group and The manufacturing Technologies Association, 2016), 54% of manufacturers cited quality of management as an obstacle to productivity growth.

Dominic Lutterloch, manager, Business Consulting, Grant Thornton LLP.
Dominic Lutterloch, manager, Business Consulting, Grant Thornton LLP.

The concept of continuous improvement is familiar ground in manufacturing, and there is a constant focus on processes and waste reduction – and yet, the essential element of management lies stubbornly in the ‘could do better’ category.

In an effort to counter this, most businesses provide senior management with – at the very least – an adequate level of support in the form of courses and executive training. But what about those who are below them in an organisation’s hierarchy? Who nurtures middle managers – the neglected middle child of the workforce?

Missing a trick?

Manufacturing lags behind other industries in embracing the potential creative input middle managers can generate. After all, middle managers have the ability to inspire both up and down the chain of command, to be the conduits through which ideas are explored and solutions found.

However, the all too common path of a middle manager is merely to get promoted from a more junior role without receiving the support and skills they need. So, the question that has to be asked is: ‘are manufacturers missing a trick here?’.

Too often we see an over-reliance on individuals who make the organisation tick. They have been there a long time, they are deeply knowledgeable and have talent and skills that couldn’t be taught from a textbook. They are also indispensable and, if they were to leave, the impact on the business could be profound.

So, rather than simply hoping they stay, a great business creates an atmosphere of consultation and engagement, of encouragement and development from which a conveyor belt of improving managers is created, learning from shared ideas. It widens and deepens the pool of problem solvers. 

Developing your middle management

One answer to this problem is introducing a ‘coaching culture’. Coaching is nothing new, but it is rarely used well. A coaching culture is often misunderstood; leading organisations to succumb to common pitfalls such as a cycle of ad hoc coaches, niche skills training or ‘better management’ courses that are isolated and ineffective.

Grant Thornton PQ - Middle Managers Feb 2017Get it right, however, and an organisation will use coaching as an integral part of how leaders and managers develop their people and interact with stakeholders in order to improve performance on an individual and collective level.

In addition to this, why not give middle managers the core skills to become coaches themselves by introducing a coaching mentality? Coaches inspire others, they extract ideas, they motivate and support.

When successfully immersed into an organisation’s culture, a coaching mentality encourages people to seek feedback, improve weaknesses and it embeds an overall desire to improve.

Getting it right

In our opinion, to successfully introduce a coaching culture into an organisation the goal should not be to overhaul management culture, but to enhance it. The first step is to develop an organisation-wide coaching strategy. Second, it is vital to align the coaching strategy with the overall business strategy.

Once this has been agreed then it’s time to build the network of coaches that form the infrastructure of the project. Next, insert the governance and project management it deserves – the potential upside is huge, so the programme needs the support, structure and accountability given to the most important initiatives.

Last, create a tier of coaches in your workforce from your middle managers.

Building a coaching infrastructure:

  • Ensure your team of coaches fulfils the required skill sets laid out in your coaching strategy – no more ad hoc coaching
  • Whether you use internal or external coaches, ensure they not only have the necessary training skills, but also relevant industry experience
  • Measure progress – set out improvement targets
  • Support – champion your coaches’ goals and highlight successes.