The buck stops in the middle

IN any organisation, middle managers are the meat in the sandwich, caught between two layers of management. The senior managers above them set the strategy, the middle manager has to implement it and make sure the employees beneath them follow direction.

This means however, that middle managers have a critical role. They are on the front line in any company, and a business owner or manager must be able to rely on them to be the guardians of the company's culture.

But what happens when middle managers stuff up?

This question has been raised in the David Jones sexual harassment claim, brought by former David Jones publicist, Kristy Fraser-Kirk.

According to her statement of claim, a number of David Jones middle managers knew of the alleged harassment involving managing director Mark McInnes (who resigned in June after two incidents involving Fraser-Kirk) and allegedly failed to act.

According to the statement of claim, David Jones public relations manager Anne-Marie Kelly told Fraser-Kirk she was aware of a separate incident involving DJ's managing director Mark McInnes and another female employee, and had told Fraser-Kirk: "Next time that happens you need to be very clear and say 'no Mark' and he'll back off."

David Jones says it will be contesting Fraser-Kirk's claims in court. It is understood DJ's will also be disputing any claims about its management.

A spokeswoman for David Jones said: "There are elements of Kristy's claim that are unfounded and highly exaggerated and we will be defending in the court and dealing with them in our defence."

Regardless of the outcome, the case does raise questions of how middle managers should behave.

Can they be trained to address difficult issues? How is their effectiveness monitored? And what if they need to be disciplined? In short, how do you develop great middle managers that really are guardians of your culture?

Jonathan Byrnes, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology management academic and specialist in middle management, says that part of the problem is that many middle managers are caught in what he calls the "competence trap".

Companies promote great technicians but the qualities that make a great technician, for example, the ability to work on your own and where necessary, cut corners, do not make a great manager. It means learning a whole new skill set and most companies, he says, don't do it that well. The result: great technicians promoted out of their depth.

"In almost all cases people do not shift their job when they move up a level," he says. "It's critical for the development of managers to have them understand when they move up to a new level what their new job is and what proportion of their time they should be spending on that new job. Otherwise, they default to the behaviour that got them the promotion which is something that should be done by the people below them."

He says the training needs to cover two areas: operational and ethical.

"The first one is training that develops managerial competence, how do you do projects and that sort of thing,'' Byrnes says.

"The most important thing there is to help managers understand what their tasks are and what proportion of their time they should spend on managing the day-to-day versus building the future of the company. Basically managers at the first level should focus primarily on getting the day-to-day work of the company done. Managers at the second level who are at the director level or department head should focus most on coaching managers and improving the process, and the second half should be on co-ordinating with their counterparts to improve the profitability of the company."

"The second part is how to be an ethical manager. People's behaviour reflects the culture of the company and the culture of the company is formed by the behaviour of people at the top, whether they do the right thing by their own behaviour and whether they are not tolerant of bad behaviour."

Much of the training of middle managers involves role playing and courses. But then, training can only go so far. Some middle managers can't learn. Kevin Dwyer, founder of change management consultancy Change Factory, puts it bluntly.

"How do you make a silk purse out of a sow's ear? There is no way you can train someone who is quite poor as a manager to become a really good manager. They need to have the behaviours to start with and training on its own won't do it,'' Dwyer says.

"You need to have not only the training but all the performance management angles as well. Training makes people able, it doesn't make them willing. To be a really good manager and to do something you don't like doing, you have to be able and willing."

"I can teach you the knowledge, I can teach you the skills, I could teach you how to do an appraisal, how to evaluate a balance sheet and a profit and loss, but if you are a micro manager, it's hard to teach you not to be a micro manager."

Dwyer says it's best first of all to study the behaviour of the aspiring manager. How, for example, does that person cope under pressure? Does their personality change?

He says if the company still wants to take a bet with that person, they better start planning years in advance to iron out any behavioural quirks. Put them on cross functional teams where they are working with a great manager. They might learn something. Give them a coach and mentor. Send them off to do courses. But this needs to be done before they are promoted.

"Do it three years before you move them,'' says Dwyer.
Australian Institute of Management chief executive Susan Herron says that good middle management is impossible without solid leadership from the top.

"It starts from the board, it comes from the CEO , and it cascades all the way down the line,'' Herron says.

Indeed, Fraser-Kirk's statement of claim captures the problem when it says that McInnes, prior to his appointment, had been reported to management for his "bullying aggression via screaming and abusive foul language". "That bullying approach was continued by McInnes and later adopted by certain of his management,'' the writ says.

This article first appeared on SmartCompany.com.au, Australia’s premier site for business advice, news, forums and blogs.

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