Unsung heroes – why middle managers are often the true stars of successful businesses

Unsung heroes – why middle managers are often the true stars of successful businesses

In business, as in sport, there are heroes. On the sports field it could be the player who scored a tournament-winning goal, and in business it’s the leader whose vision helped rejuvenate a tired company. But the CEO-worshipping “heroic leadership” concept doesn’t always hold water. The true heroes in business are often the middle managers, the quietly diligent ones who sharpen, modify and turn a conceptual high-level strategy into something truly brilliant.

Many of these unsung heroes remain anonymous – companies don’t often celebrate their middle managers because lifting one over another causes ill will (and sometimes because the top brass wants most of the credit for themselves).

But one who comes to mind is the late Hans Schneider, former general manager of the award-winning Siemens Amberg Electronics Factory in Germany, whose motto has resonated with me for many years: “He who stops getting better has stopped being good.”

The plant under Schneider and his colleagues past, present and future has flourished, principally through excellence in areas not usually associated with flashy heroism: supply chain management, operational strategy and personnel organisation.

In fact, I believe that there are three limitations to traditional views of heroic business leadership.

First, visionary leaders are hit-and-miss: for every great leader you name, I can counter-name someone who had a vision that led the organisation into an abyss, or a vision that went bad as the leader acquired an ever-bigger ego and came to believe in his or her own supposed legend.

Second, leaders imposing their own vision can suppress group creativity. Vision should arise from the input of many, and while the leader may put it together he or she should not do it alone because this tends to transform the person into a bottleneck for creativity and knowledge.

Third, hero-type leadership is typically aggregate and abstract – pretty slides, often expensively produced, that bear little connection to organisational reality and the ability of people throughout the company to translate lovely PowerPoint into practical action.

So my heroes are the middle managers who quietly create something real and lasting out of sometimes glamorous but half-baked and even flawed “visions.”

An example that comes to mind is the plant manager (a modest person I won’t name) of an automotive supply plant in Germany that makes axles and the mechanical connections between axles and gearboxes.

Seeking to meet a challenging strategic goal set from above – world-class quality and world-class costs in a high-labour cost country – this manager decided that everyone from senior management to factory-floor worker had ideas to contribute, so he installed structures ranging from “quality circles” to training, in order to support and implement the good ideas that emerged.

Over time, investment in this idea generation meant that more than 40 per cent of the plant’s blue-collar workers’ time was spent on “improvement” tasks rather than daily production – which is not as alarming as it sounds given that total labour costs in the plant was only three per cent of total costs.

The plant manager also held the view that in order to achieve a great outcome, people needed to test ideas that didn’t work. At the same time, he demanded that people communicated with colleagues to ensure that any changes didn’t make the work of others more difficult – so one person’s experimental dream didn’t turn into a nightmare for others.

Owing at least partly to this idea generation, the plant achieved impressive and innovative productivity improvements along with a superb quality record. For example, the company invested more than €10m into a new painting line that was proposed and designed by factory-floor workers (assisted by specialist engineers).

And when the car industry began looking seriously at electric vehicles – posing a future threat to the core of what this plant did, because electrical vehicles do not need drive trains – the plant began experimenting with electric-engine assembly in a side-building, to acquire capabilities and to see how many people they could employ doing so.

While there was no world-conquering hero career for this particular manager – after a customary period in the job he was moved sideways into the headquarters’ manufacturing planning function – he left behind a plant competitively placed for the present and prepared for a radically changing future.

For business students and business people, I think there is a lesson to take away from the unsung heroism of effective middle managers. It is difficult to find competitive advantage in strategic vision alone (as some quip, “strategies are cheaper by the dozen”), but a great source of competitive advantage lies in middle managers that make the visions real and sharpen them in the process.

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