A Better Line of Communication
Middle managers—bosses without portfolios, the interface between top executives and staff and the source of the best business intelligence—tend to be misused, underused and overworked. As you’ll see, that is not a contradiction.
Because middle managers are hands-on people focusing intensely on their narrow piece of turf, they generally lack the time or opportunity to share any business intelligence with other middle managers. Instead, they report only to their superiors, who usually hold titles such as vice-president.
What’s so important about getting middle managers to talk to one another? Isn’t it enough that they stay in touch with the VPs?
In one word: No. And here’s why.
Middle manager Abbie reports regularly to vice-president Bill. Their communication generally is limited to Abbie’s department. Middle manager Dilbert also reports regularly to VP Bill, and they, too, usually limit their conversation to Dilbert’s department—and so on for each middle manager under Bill’s authority. So all the information goes either up or down; nothing goes sideward—between Abbie and Dilbert or between any of the other middle managers.
You might challenge that statement, claiming Bill, a good manager, shares with his subordinates everything he thinks they need to know about the other departments under his wing. The critical phrase is everything he thinks they need to know.
The response to that challenge is this: No matter how good Bill is, he will never be able to make those judgments better than middle managers themselves. After all, Bill’s opportunity to spot potential areas of synergy between departments is limited by what he is told and what he can see himself.
Consider this possibility: The gizmo sales manager is having an informal chat with the gizmo production manager. During the conversation, she drops some incidental information about what customers especially like about the company’s gizmos. The production manager suddenly realizes that he can make some tiny cost-cutting changes in the gizmo design that some customers would be totally indifferent to, and that would make gizmos more popular to a new audience.
Steps to take: Vice-presidents should encourage middle managers to meet at regular times—sometimes with the VP present and sometimes not. A secure executive will appreciate that middle managers would be able to talk more openly—and share more effectively—when the vice-president is not in the room and brownie points are not being sought after.
Caution: There’s a strong possibility middle managers would drag their feet about setting up meetings on their own, claiming they lack the time. In that case, a wise vice-president should intervene and book a date for them to get together, telling them attendance will be taken. Once they meet, they will quickly realize how profitable such information gatherings are, and when the vice-president does meet with them, he or she, too, will recognize the value of information that moves not just up and down, but laterally as well.