Middle Management - Responses to Readers' Perspectives

Courtesy: www.blog.thelivejobs.com

I am a strong believer in the impact that a capable middle management can make to any organization – large corporate or startup. This view has been validated internally at Google and is also elucidated in research conducted by Stanford professor, consultant & author – Behnam Tabrizi. Basis this belief, I wrote an article on 4 reasons why startups need middle management and followed it up with some tips on developing middle managers at startups. I received a lot of interesting and thought provoking comments to these articles and I would like to sincerely thank all those who shared their perspectives. Here are some of my thoughts on each of the issues:

Middle management creates artificial hierarchies

“The term Middle Management in the context of a small startup goes against the grain. Titles in India bring in too much ego and subvert collaboration. Unless the startup is >50 people, tag-teaming, double eye-balling and mentors/ coaches work better.”

I definitely see merit in this argument that you don’t want to create too many artificial hierarchies in a startup. That said, clear accountability does need to be established and somewhere, it is a bit utopian to hope that all team members will be perfectly committed to their work. Even if commitment is there, people work at different levels of capability and someone is required to formally guide the team. Even for a startup that has <50 people, I believe that after a certain stage, the founder’s time is best utilized in market facing rather than managing the internal team. Hierarchies, I believe, arise from the attitude of individuals rather than titles. However, if one genuinely feels that titles are the issue, feel free not to use them. I just think that if I were to give someone charge of getting work delivered through others, of motivating and guiding them and of addressing their day to day issues, I would rather formally recognize that person as a manager!

Startup talent is the problem - middle management addresses only the symptoms

“I agree with your view of requiring middle management to handle talent that is not productive or not motivated or requires titles to feel important. What I do believe, however, is such talent must not be working in startups. It’s the founder’s job to look for, and hire productive people who are motivated to take the company to the next level. Is this difficult? Absolutely! But a founder must do it. His employees are the first people he must communicate the vision of the company to, and get them to share it. Then come the investors, and customers. If you cannot convince people to share your vision and work with you, I don't see how you can get investments on it, or customers to pay for it.”

Again, something that I think is very true at a philosophical and idealistic level. But I’m really not sure how feasible it is for founders to spend their time looking for people who come with the right capability, the right attitude and are willing to work for a startup; then to convince them that this particular startup is the right one. I agree that founders need to spend time selling their vision to their teams but there again, it does come down to drawing some balance between how the founder spends his/ her time. But I’m not an entrepreneur, at least not fully there as yet, so I’d like to pose this question to people who are actually running their own companies...

Gap between management and workforce creates the need for middle management

“If the communication network in the company is ideal and flat, then there will be no managers required at all. But more often than not, most startups in India seem interested in hiring upper management and fill out the grunt work with freshers, without valuing the interaction between these cohorts. This gap is often unmanageable, especially in the existing Indian environment where the cultural, academic and competitive attitudes of these cohorts are often vastly different.”

This is a great perspective that underscores my belief in the need for middle management. I too have seen many startups that have a few senior folks as senior management/ co-founders and a much larger pool of employees with very little experience. I agree that this could lead to communication gaps and that middle managers could help by plugging this gap.

Founders should not detach themselves from their teams

“One of the most motivating aspects of working in a startup is the relationship one enjoys with the founder. Bringing in middle managers will create detachment, which will de-motivate the team.”

I sincerely believe that somewhere the founder needs to prioritize his/ her time. Yes, internal team is extremely important. But what about customers, investors and media – the founder has to be the face to them. As it is, my point was not that the founder should completely detach himself/ herself. Just stay away from day to day, operational issues. Yes, this will mean that the team will see lesser of the founder. But that is an important trade-off. However, founders should ensure that they do periodic team debriefs, share information and stay connected to the extent possible.

In conclusion, I would say that like with most people issues, middle management cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution for startups. Each founder will need to take a call basis their own teams, their business and the demands on their time from external sources. But I do think that middle management is key for any startup that is looking to scale and that startups would be better off recognizing the role of middle managers earlier rather than later.


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