Insights

Middle Managers In The Digital Age

From command and control to coach and empower

Companies grappling with how to transform their business practices to remain competitive with digital natives often see the issue in terms of IT, data, engineers, and scientists. What can we do to change our IT infrastructure and where can we find the wunderkind engineers we need?

This is not necessarily wrong, but it is only one piece of the solution. The trick in digital transformation is not only to implement faster, open-source IT systems, but also to reinvent the organization. The best way to do that is to unleash your workforce to innovate on behalf of the customer. That focus creates a pragmatic, tangible rationale for the transformation. The speed of your customers’ changing expectations provides a burning platform that changes the way you work.

The new middle-manager role is to support, enable, coach, and empower people to use all the tools available to meet customer expectations, to address their pain points, and to encourage experimentation and iteration across silos.

Scaling that platform requires a management model that puts empowerment at the core. Decentralization and cross-functional teams are good, but not sufficient unless employees feel empowered to make decisions. The greatest commitment is achieved when work teams are given the problem—provide the customer with a world-class experience, day after day—but not the solution.

Especially critical is the role of middle managers, who have historically been driven by rules, processes, and reporting structures. In the traditional organization, middle managers controlled the information and thus the power. In the digital era, information is widely dispersed and easily accessible, obviating the need for day-to-day, face-to-face contact with people. The new middle-manager role is to support, enable, coach, and empower people to use all the tools available to meet customer expectations, to address their pain points, and to encourage experimentation and iteration across silos.

The goal is to change the way you work without changing many of the people who work for you, and thereby reduce the risk of losing the culture, institutional knowledge, and loyalty of employees. With a renewed focus on bringing the customer top quality products and services through multiple channels, and a management model that embraces empowered employees, an incumbent organization can more effectively combat digital natives.