How to mitigate middle-management crisis, and avert talent shocks to your organisation
A manager is the new full-stack engineer! But are all of them up to what is required? Like the line from the famous poem, "water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink", employees with management titles are plenty, yet the capable manager is a rare commodity.
The culture of the organisation can be significantly eroded when the middle management of the firm has a high churn. The productivity of teams takes a hit, causing ballooning talent costs. Hence, it is a no-brainer that companies invest in mid-manager development from the perspective of both organisational health and financial health of the firm.
Repercussions of having poor middle management
The biggest reason why people leave companies is due to poor management.
As seen in EngageRocket's State of Employee Experience Report 2021, managers have a profound impact on employee experience. The attrition rate is incredibly high in Southeast Asia, leading to a strong burn and churn culture. Against a backdrop of tech talent shortage, this has an impact on a company's product development, growth, and bottom line.
Managers of yesterday could supervise employees on a shop floor or an IT office space. Today, managers must instill the culture of high performance in teams that are distributed and remote-first.
“Without this, the teams’ plateau on their performance rapidly, employees start to disengage and leave the firm. It’s a vicious cycle of high churn in talent and low productivity when the managerial ability is below par for today’s normal,” says Hariraj Vijaykumar, founder and CEO, NWORX, digital platform for leadership development.
With Southeast Asia’s (SEA) digital economy accelerating at a breakneck speed and more startups moving into the late stage, there is a greater demand for capable managers, especially those that are in hypergrowth.
This is critical because the average manager leading a team in Asia is in their mid-20s or early-30s. In some industries like e-commerce, managers are even younger. “Most people become managers at 30, but management development only starts in their 40s. This results in a decade of 'the blind leading the blind'," says WIll Fan, co-founder and CEO at Singapore-based edtech business school NewCampus.
This potentially can lead to toxic work culture and employee attrition rates rising over time, much of which might have been avoided with more accessible leadership training earlier on.
“In SEA, people could be leading teams of 15-30 when they’re in their mid-20s. Bad management affects organisational performance and staff retention,” he adds .
Rising demand for managers
Accelerated tech adoption across sectors, coupled with the shifting nature of work, from the centralised controlled workforce to the emergence of remote-first distributed teams (gig, part-time and full-time), is the big change in business.
“The tech adoption is enabling businesses to prioritise agendas such as digital transformation, automation drives, CX initiatives, and data analytics programmes. While the world, in general, is attempting to shake off the after-effects of the pandemic even as the latest surge is being managed, we see leaders getting down to driving progress towards tangible milestones in transformation.
"This requires planning, gaining alignment with teams, and securing a commitment from every individual in the organisation. Leaders expect capable managers to execute these actions. This also means that significant change management challenges must be overcome by each manager in the business ecosystem to adapt and move forward,” says Vijaykumar.
Challenges faced by middle management
Middle management are struggling too, with recent reports showing that this segment has borne the brunt of work in the pandemic.
A survey by Slack of 9,000 knowledge workers last year showed that middle managers felt the most amount of stress with remote working compared to senior management and individual contributors. They also had the lowest scores in productivity and overall satisfaction.
Burnout can trickle down and managers unable to handle the transition well could conversely impact their juniors.
They also struggle with a variety of strategic and people leadership issues.
Vijaykumar says the most prominent is about internalising the strategic agenda of the firm and being able to translate that vision into actional plans for the team, boundary-spanning abilities to set, and drive an agenda that can bring significant value to the organisation.
Also needed is gaining alignment from the various teams in their span of control through influential conversations, securing a commitment from the teams through an inspirational yet direct approach to execution, offering developmental feedback to senior members of the team and instilling behaviour of high-performing teams.
Helping mid managers become better leaders in the future of work
So how do organisations help them become better leaders in the future of work?
Fan says management development is traditionally outdated, expensive and inaccessible.
Delivery model doesn't iterate and serve for the fast-paced nature of a hypergrowth company. “If you jump from being an individual contributor to a leader of 10 in less than 18 months, you don't have time to do a 2-year degree,” he says.
Fan suggests the following tips for managers to become better leaders.
Cross-cultural exposure: A diversity of experiences helps them relate to people, empathise and gain broader perspectives beyond their immediate domain or geographic location
Resilience: In a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world, leaders who can navigate volatility, uncertainty and complexity and ambiguity can scale themselves and their teams more effectively.
People skills: Organisations are ultimately comprised of human beings, being able to influence, persuade, inspire and uplift others is key to a better future of work.
Managers can be enabled for these seemingly stretch goals and tasks through continuous development, says Vijaykumar.
“The development offered must be targeted towards outcomes that matter to the business, must be performance-oriented and not merely learning-oriented, must offer individualised performance support through mechanisms such as coaching, and must offer multiple avenues of development such as practicing critical skills, using mental models etc,” he adds.