Success starts at the middle

Managers asked to do more, but not getting enough support

Over the past three years, managers at Pfizer’s manufacturing facility in Arnprior, just west of Ottawa, have been asked to do much more than they used to, says Laura Dallas, manager of HR.

“There is a lot more emphasis on the bottom line for middle mangers than there has been in the past,” she says.

The change occurred after an organizational realignment led to an increased focus on product cost, she says. Employees are being asked to be more responsible and efficient but accountability resides with the managers. They have more responsibility for managing and setting budgets. They’re involved in more meetings about the business and must have a better grasp of the organization’s finances.

On top of this, employee development has become a more pressing concern. This too means extra work for managers.

“They are doing a lot more one-on-one coaching than they were previously doing,” Dallas says. HR can create programs but can’t have one-on-one career development discussions with every employee. That’s up to the manager, she says.

Inevitably some managers have balked at the changing responsibilities. Workload is a big issue and some managers do resent being given the extra responsibility, Dallas says.

“I think we want to move faster than people are ready to move. Honestly, some people think that if they put up enough resistance for long enough then maybe we’ll forget about it,” she says. “We just have to keep presenting the business case of why (the changes are being made).”

A similar story is being told at a large and growing number of organizations, according to a recent study from the Conference Board of Canada.

Since the late ’90s, many organizations have been asking more of managers, says Carolyn Farquhar, director of organizational excellence at the Conference Board and co-author, with Patricia Booth, of Leading from the middle: Managers make the difference. The biggest difference is a much greater degree of accountability, both for bottom-line performance and engagement of employees.

“Organizations have recognized that people are assets, and that they cannot be managed in the same way as financial or physical assets,” states the report. “Increasingly, organizations recognize that the greatest returns can come from building capacity among middle managers.” Research on turnover shows the number one reason employees leave their jobs is unhappiness with their managers, says Farquhar.

The authors interviewed managers at four organizations well-known for their efforts to support managers — Telus, Dofasco, RBC Royal Bank and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts — to sketch out the best practices for supporting managers.

While many organizations say managers are one of the most important keys to success, they often aren’t doing enough to support them, says Farquhar. Managers feel pressure to do much more than they used to yet they often feel undervalued, she says. “There are some clear signs that middle managers are quite overwhelmed.”

“We cut out middle-management layers years ago and now we are realizing how critical a role they really play,” says Fiorella Callochia, HR author and consultant.

“The question is, ‘Will organizations put their money where their mouth is and give these managers the training, reward, recognition, skills, prestige they deserve?’”

Managers need to be given clear roles and expectations and the people management aspects of their jobs should be added to their job descriptions, assessed in their performance reviews and tied to their compensation, she says.

And before promoting someone into middle management, their leadership capability should be assessed, as well as their desire to be a manager. The HR department needs to ensure the person takes on the role for the right reasons, not because it’s seen as a way to make more money or because the person feels that turning down the job is a career-ender.

Middle managers in almost every organization have more to worry about than they did in the past, says Blair Pollard, senior manager, strategy and development at RBC Royal Bank. For example, they’re being asked to do more of the things HR once took care of, he says. To be done right, these duties can take a significant part of a managers work week. Could a manager spend a full day per week on people issues? It would have value, but it’s probably unrealistic, Pollard says. In most cases those responsibilities are simply added to their regular duties.

A lot of organizations are hung up on FTE (full-time employee) numbers, says Pollard. They are reluctant to add managers to make workloads more manageable because the savings aren’t always immediately clear and they are loath to increase head count without an obvious and immediate return.

“A lot of organizations don’t have the guts to take that leap of faith,” he says.

“We haven’t done it yet, but we are going through that conversation now,” he says. If managers are going to do everything that is expected of them, then something else has to come off their plate, he says. “We also talked about the issue that there will be a lag before you start to get the increased business returns” from having managers who are better equipped to deal with people issues.

RBC is considering updating its core management training program, developing people manager competencies, to ensure managers are better equipped to meet evolving expectations. The old program wasn’t that well attended, admits Pollard.

They are considering modularizing it, separating the various components so that more of the content is available in a just-in-time fashion.

“We have even talked a little bit about accrediting people managers, but we haven’t gotten too far with that,” says Pollard. Creating a RBC people manager credential would ensure the managers have a certain level of ability, and send a strong message to employees that the organization is committed to sound people management.

“It certainly won’t sell in all of our businesses,” he says. But if financial planners have to be certified it isn’t unreasonable to suggest people managers should also have to prove they are up to the job, he says.

Hamilton-based steelmaker Dofasco has been doing “an awful lot of work right now” to identify and prepare its middle managers of the future, says Dave Santi, manager human resource development.

The reason? Finding the great managers and leaders of the future will be what separates successful companies from the rest. By 2006 or 2007, Dofasco will face a shortage of middle managers as a large number move into retirement. In an effort to minimize the effects the organization has begun some “very deliberate” efforts to improve its crop of potential managers both through recruitment and improved development practices.

For some positions, Dofasco is looking three levels below the current manager to identify workers with the right people skills, says Santi. “We are trying to find out as much as we can about an individual’s qualities as early as possible,” he says.

And Dofasco recruiters have been conscientiously looking for future leaders at every stage of the recruitment process, including introducing behavioural interviewing at the campus level to identify Dofasco’s managers of the future.

“We are looking for leadership qualities right from day one,” he says. “It is not just the highest marks that get you into the company.”

The company is also looking for ways to flatten the learning for current employees so that they will be ready to take on management responsibilities sooner.

Only about 20 per cent of manager development is formal training. The rest is learned on the job, says Santi. In the past it was okay to allow people to acquire that experience naturally, but now there isn’t really time for that.

“We have to get people ready sooner,” he says. “Learning can’t just be on the buddy system.”

Dofasco is looking at more rigorous measurement practices to ensure prospective managers are getting the training and development they need even on an informal basis. They are also moving budding managers into new positions more often to get them as much experience as possible.

“It takes about 15 years to develop a good manager,” he says. “We just have to figure out a way to do it in seven or eight.”

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