Middle managers don’t get much respect. In fact many CEOs of late have tried to flatten out their management hierarchies to get rid of as many middle managers as possible.
Thus I was surprised to read The Wall Street Journal article The Economy’s Last Best Hope: Superstar Middle Managers sub-titled Anemic growth, millennial malaise, you name it—blame a lack of inspiring bosses. Superstar middle managers sounded like an oxymoron to me.
The problem posited by Sam Walker, the article’s author, is lack of growth in the economy. As he writes, “For the better part of three decades, economists have worn out their chalkboards trying to map a path back to the glory days of 7% growth. So far, the only point they agree on is that we must be doing something wrong.”
What triggered the article and the possible solution to lack of economic growth was a survey of the future of work.
Five years ago, the Gallup organization embarked on one of the most ambitious deep dives it has ever conducted; an analysis of the future of work based on a decade of input from nearly 2 million employees and more than 300,000 business units. The results confirmed something Gallup had seen before: a company’s productivity depends, to a high degree, on the quality of its managers.
What no one saw coming, however, was the sheer size of that correlation—something Gallup calls “the single most profound, distinct and clarifying finding” in its 80-year history. The study showed that managers didn’t just influence the results their teams achieved, they explained a full 70% of the variance. In other words, if it’s a superior team you’re after, hiring the right manager is nearly three-fourths of the battle.
You can read a lot more about this in Gallup’s forthcoming book, It’s the Manager.Gallup found that today that people they surveyed ranked having a rewarding job as their number one priority, unlike previous decades when they ranked family, having children, owning a home and living in peace above having a good job. Today’s workers are engaged with work when it generates feelings of purpose and personal growth.
What sort of return can businesses expect from doing this? According to Gallup, the top 10% of companies, ranked by engagement, posted profit gains of 26% through the last recession compared with a 14% skid at comparable employers.
Mr. Walker’s solution to flat-lined productivity growth is that companies need to hire better managers, going against the mistaken practice of promoting superstar individual contributors into management. As I’ve posted elsewhere, that often results in losing a superstar individual and gaining a lousy manager.
His formula is that better managers will generate higher levels of engagement in their teams, resulting in greater worker productivity.
So forget about the $1,000 expresso machines, the free back massages, the endless supplies of food, none of these attempts to galvanize workers can touch the power of providing them with a fulfilling, rewarding job. Save your money and put it into hiring effective middle managers, who will inspire your teams. And you might want to set aside a few dollars to buy a copy of Mr. Walker’s book, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, because the true organizational measure of any company is not the division or the department but the team, and every team needs a great captain in order to win.