Insecure Middle Level Managers – Help Them !


Yesterday, I was most excited to see an email from my friend and mentee Tomas Krojzl . IBM’s CEO and her senior staff chose Tomas as one of the “Best of IBM 2013” Winners. That is a huge deal in IBM – to be one of the few picked out of 430,000+ employees. No one I knew before personally have made it to that list. I, and many others I know, have made it to the “clubs” for selling more than our targets – but that is nothing compared to what Tomas got recognized for.

Way to go, Tomas – you are an inspiration to the rest of us – within and outside IBM !

As much as I like Tomas , I think there are some unsung heroes in this story – his management that put him up and supported his nomination all the way up. This is exactly what leadership is all about. They let Tomas shine bright as just reward for everything he did and continues to do – with no concern that Tomas will get more visibility and credit than they ever will. Hats off to them – I wish I had more managers like that, and I wish I acted that way more times in my own role as a manager.

At every employer I have worked for – I have had good and bad ( and sometimes terrible) managers. I am only 2 months into SAP , and so far everything is great – so I can’t say from first hand experience how it is with managers in SAP. I can certainly say I could have done a lot better as a manager than I have in the past.

Middle managers are a stressed out lot largely. They fall into a few buckets in generally – and some oscillate between these groups.

1. They see a clear career path forward and a rough time line to get to next levels.

2. They are happy where they are, and do not have a lot of growth ambitions for whatever reasons. Most often, they feel secure where they are.

3. They have no clear idea on where to go next or how to get there – although some might think they know, yet can’t stand scrutiny when pushed for an answer.

Those who know they have a path forward – I think they are of two types. One type is very secure – and will lead their team , and everyone will progress together. They will coach effectively , recruit people smarter than them, get rid of people from the team if they think coaching is not helping and so on. And they will never stand in the path of someone else’s progress. Not only that – they will go out of their way to smash obstacles in your way, and teach you how to smash the next obstacle you encounter. And when they need help – they have no shame in asking for it.

One of my mentors at IBM once told me “I can totally foresee me working for you in few years” . This is a guy I had looked up to for several years, and you can imagine my shock. But I could make out that he was proud that it was a real possibility that his mentee would forge ahead, and that he was part of the reason why that could happen. I know another senior executive at SAP who has hired and groomed several top achievers, and she now works for one of her recruits. Yet another friend of mine – whom I met last week at Bangalore – gladly introduced me to his boss, whom he helped recruit. These are all people I greatly admire. And I would love to work for them any day, or have them in my team any day. It is a privilege just to know them.

Then there is the other type – who are insecure. From the outside, they look exactly like the first type – the key difference is that they mostly care only about themselves. They “manage up” significantly better than other employees. In common parlance – they are awesome politicians. They are masters of stealing credit from their team. The best of them manipulate their teams to make them think that they are watching out for the best interests of the team. Sadly, it takes a while to know who they are . I even doubt they realize this is how they operate – I have asked some of these characters, and they seemed to have rationalized their ways somehow.

Getting stuck with an insecure middle manager is painful – and I have been unfortunate to occasionally have insecure bosses. And I constantly worry if I am (or f I will become) one of them.

It is not as if top management is free of insecurity and politics – they clearly are not. The big difference is that by the time they are in top management, most of them have a fair knowledge of what is next for their careers. So my observation is that only a handful are insecure – and they usually stick out like a sore thumb. And once you know who they are, you can work around them somehow in most cases – or you can leave. There is not a lot of guessing needed for employees, management and peers.

Every company I know think they have a talent shortage . In my opinion, before they look outside – they should evaluate their middle management layers. My bet is that there is plenty of talent usually in companies, and the only reason the top management can’t spot them is because a portion of middle management is insecure, and will hide their top performers. I readily admit that not all middle managers do it out of malice – some just have protective instincts , and like to shield their team. They don’t always think through whether the team needs that extra air cover.

Help these middle level managers – chart a course for them and help them navigate. And make sure you get to know more people up and down the org chain, so that you don’t always need a middle level manager to spot talent. And please amply reward the best of them – like the ones who saw Tomas through to his achievement . They are a big reason why good companies become awesome companies. And if you can’t coach them – move away their employees to another manager who is secure and can do them justice as a leader.

Congratulations again, Tomas – very proud of you. And I am looking forward to see a lot more stars being well recognized and not stifled.

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2 thoughts on “Insecure Middle Level Managers – Help Them !

  1. You have hit the nail on the head Vijay! Only a faction of middle managers in companies can embrace such a generous perspective which would force them to give up dominance and remove the virtual ceiling they create for people who reports to them. Many times people take drastic steps and go for shopping outside in the industry just to break out from the resulting stagnancy in careers. It becomes a loss for the organization as well as the person who lost hopes.

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