Back to the Future… 1996 are you listening?


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spike bullet October, 1996 –

spike bullet Re-engineering – Middle Managers are the Key Asset

By Steve Towers, used with permission (Thanks, Steve!)

Tips for Success as a Middle Manager

There are a number of individual and organizational actions that lead to proven success:

  1. Move away from day-to-day operations – these belong in the front-line.
  2. Think like senior managers
  3. Understand the business strategy
  4. Participate at all levels by exploiting their technical and organizational expertise
  5. Manage change and people together.
  6. Utilize their role as ‘Ace mediator’.
  7. Become a practical visionary.
  8. Become the master of change

(Full text of the article follows)

Steve Towers, Chairman of the Business Process Management Group (BPMG) and UtiliSense, offers some sage advice for survival.

Preamble: Middle Managers are under immense pressure from above and below to do more with less.

Everyone is doing it – Southern Electric International acquiring SWEB, Hanson and Eastern Group getting together, North West Water and Norweb forming United Utilities. London city is rife with more rumors – who’s next? One thing is certain and that is that everything is changing. Many utilities are anticipating, and indeed pre-empting change, by taking greater control over their own destiny through Business Process Re-engineering. Amidst all this radical change what is happening to the Middle Manager? Is the role still a viable one? What does the Middle Manager have to do to survive?

Pressure to change almost irresistible

The current Merger/Acquisition mania-sweeping the sector, coupled with nervous Regulators, Customer dissatisfaction, Director pay publicity, and the looming election are rocking the boat and causing utilities to rethink themselves. This self-appraisal is resulting in ‘new-look’ organizations which have been become Down-sized, Customer focused, Team managed with Flatter, de-layered organization structures.

Middle Manager has become an endangered species

In response to the need to cut costs some organizations have effectively scrapped the role of Middle Manager! They are viewed by many writers on change as excess ‘organizational baggage’. Mike Hammer, co-author of ‘Re-engineering the Corporation’ says in his latest eulogy ‘. . . we refer to this managerial hierarchy . . . as the Death Zone of re-engineering. Middle managers have the most invested in the status quo and stand to lose the most in re-engineering’ So that’s it? The end of Middle Management as we know it? Yes and no, the organizations that have achieved re-engineering success (ant there’s a lot who haven’t) have done so with the middle manager playing the key role. However it does involve transforming the role.
Evidence is now emerging that organizations who view the middle manager as ‘dead wood’ are doomed; companies that ‘hack out’ the middle manager are destroying the greatest potential asset. Unfortunately many still believe that by scrapping this vital resource they will succeed. This is one of the reasons why so many re-engineering programs falter and subsequently fail.

Middle Manager survival

The key to success is changing the role. Middle managers are no longer up-and-down information conduits, or simple plan-control-evaluate-functionaries. They embody the core competence of the successful organization.
Re-engineering success is achieved by the middle managers identifying the business breakthroughs; becoming good role models and overcoming the organizational barriers that prevent success. Senior management are beginning to appreciate that in true Pareto style, if they are to achieve the customer improved, reduced cost, flexible and dynamic business they must use and enhance this organizational role. The really successful business managers know that the pivotal position of the middle managers can convert a cynical ‘change-blitzed’ organization.

So what does the Middle manager need to do to ensure success?

There are a number of individual and organizational actions that lead to proven success:
1. Move away from day-to-day operations – these belong in the front-line.
Avoid being distracted by the minutia of life. Becoming buried in the detail is a sure-fire way of missing the point. There’s a need to focus on the important more strategic issues, let the front-line worker gain the necessary knowledge and competence to develop the skills to fulfill a more rounded role, and indeed deal with the detail.
2. Think like senior managers
Looking up and out provides scope for dealing with more substantive issues. Contributing to the internal ‘way forward’ debates will ensure that the Middle Managers extensive knowledge is utilized for organizational benefit.
3. Understand the business strategy
What are the things which cause the organization to want to change? How can the organization direct its own future, anticipating threats and exploiting opportunity?
4. Participate at all levels by exploiting their technical and organizational expertise
Many Middle Managers have internalized a great deal of technical and organizational knowledge – how their business works best, the mechanics of the way things get done, what will work and why some things fail. Spread the knowledge. It will ensure that decision making is informed and well thought out.
5. Manage change and people together.
Set an example and coach the less experienced through difficulties.
6. Utilize their role as ‘Ace mediator’.
Someone who is able to understand internal and external pressures on the organization and satisfy competing interests.
7. Become a practical visionary.
Converting the strategic ‘top-think’ into meaningful actions, and counseling the front-liners through often difficult transformation.
8. Become the master of change
Set the agenda by recognizing what is possible and harnessing the organization to achieve it. Understand the practical ways of implementing change, initiate activities that lead to ‘shifts in thinking’ about the way work is done.

Comments from the field

Asking the question ‘How can you become a more effective middle manager?’ elicited the following thought-provoking responses.
Rory Chase, Managing Director of IFS International in Bedford, has first-hand experience of the challenges:

  • He says “the new role of the middle manager embraces three key areas – Team leadership, Change Maker and Facilitator.”
  • Rory explains that Team leadership is about setting an example, establishing a good role model and actively leading from the front.
  • Being a Change Maker means being innovative, looking for continual improvement and interpreting the needs of senior management, staff and customers alike.
  • The Facilitator is about getting the right things to happen.
  • Rory finally adds “Getting total buy-in to change.
  • Gaining the commitment of the organization to successful improvement.”
  • That’s no small agenda to accomplish, especially since ‘business as usual’ doesn’t stop as the new role develops.

In the more fragmented United States utility sector they have been experiencing this type of change for some time now. Leonard Sayles, author of ‘The Working Leader’ and a senior manager at the Center for Creative Leadership says:

  • “Everything has changed.
  • You have much more demanding customers, who are increasingly demanding customization.
  • These customers are not only demanding, their needs are in flux . . .
  • The market is itself more turbulent.”
  • Leonard sees the new role as completely rethinking the past, “You need to keep redesigning and adapting the (business) processes, with the power and autonomy people can have.
  • This type of integration can only take place through a variety of middle manager negotiations and interventions.
  • Mainly you have to remember that all the things you’ve been told (about managing) are totally wrong.”

Grasp the Change

Realizing this transformation will free not just yourself but the people around you. Seizing the initiative, and going for growth will truly empower you and the organization. Chocks away!


After an early career in the Utility and then the Financial Services sector Steve Towers co-founded Utilisense Consulting, now established as a leading BPR consultancy. He is Chairman of the Business Process Management Group (BPMG) and has recently been appointed Chairman of IntraNet Solutions, a systems consultancy currently undertaking Internet/IntraNet assignments with leading blue chip companies.

Well that was back in the 20th century. Is it really any different now?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steve Towers
A seasoned practitioner with over 30 years of hands-on experience, Steve Towers is one of industry's noted experts in BPM, Customer Expectation Management and Performance transformation. Towers heads the Research & Professional Services network within the BP Group, the world's first and premier network for Process & Performance professionals.


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