Developing Middle Managers at Startups


In my last article, I wrote about the need for startups to create a layer of middle management. I argued about how middle managers help take off operational burden from the founders, drive team productivity, enhance employee engagement and take the startup to the next level. In this article, I will cover some tips on selecting middle managers and how to groom them. But before we go any further, it is important to understand what middle management is all about.

Or not about... Here’s one of my favourite management jokes that makes the point very well. A man was in a hot air balloon and realized he was lost. Dropping altitude, he asked a person on the ground where has was, sharing that he had promised to meet a friend some time ago. The person responded with the exact altitude, latitude & longitude to which the guy in the balloon said, “You must be an engineer. Everything you told me is technically correct, but of no help at all. If anything, you've delayed my trip." The person on the ground retorted, “You’re obviously a manager. You don't know where you are or where you're going. You’ve risen thanks to gas. You made a promise which you've no idea how to keep, and expect people beneath you to solve your problems. You’re exactly where you were before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault.”

Let’s clear some of these myths about middle management. Middle Managers are the tacticians in the company. Their job is to convert the broader business objectives into specific, executable tasks that they then guide and supervise others through. They train, mentor and motivate the team to be productive. By collaborating with their peers through the company, they ensure that the work being done by various teams is aligned to create synergies. Through their day-to-day interactions with the team, they sense the pulse of the company and share it with management/ founders. They have reached where they are because of how they have performed and the knowledge they carry. And they lead, by doing...

So when it comes to choosing your middle management, here are some key things to watch out for:

  • A deep understanding of the company’s culture & values is important (this is where tenure helps)
  • Past performance is key; tenure can’t be the only factor
  • Willingness to get their own hands dirty
  • Ability to be authoritative without rubbing people the wrong way
  • Desire to manage others
  • The team should look up to the person

Once you have selected your middle management, don’t just make a big announcement and expect that the entire reporting mechanism will fall into place. You need to ease the transition and also groom the new managers to take up their roles. Here are some tips:

Ease in the responsibilities

Start by assigning specific tasks to the group and assign the to-be manager as the group leader. Give him/ her a chance to informally manage the team and the team to accept the person as a leader. Try to select tasks where the to-be manager is already adept and hence, will naturally be in a position to guide others. Gradually increase the number of such tasks till the team is ultimately doing almost all their activities under the to-be manager’s guidance.

Detach yourself slowly

While the team may take to working under supervision relatively easily, the larger challenge will be that they will still see you as the go-to person when they face personal/ interpersonal issues. This may also be something that you may find difficult to let go off. Remind yourself that freeing up your personal bandwidth is critical. Initially, when employees come up to you, call in the manager and jointly discuss solutions. Gradually, start discouraging employees from coming to you with day to day issues and ask them to go to the manager directly. That said, never disconnect yourself from team members completely. Do some weekly team meetings and try to do monthly one on ones with employees.

Conduct planning sessions with managers

According to Behnam Tabrizi – consultant, author & professor at Standford, there are 3-As that make for successful middle management – Alignment, Authorship & Action. On the HBR Blog Network, he wrote how successful managers “were able to see how the initiatives aligned with their own personal and professional aspirations” and “were typically the major authors of the initiatives”. It is extremely important that you spend time with each manager to plan out the team’s priorities and objectives. There needs to be a sense of ownership for these plans to achieve the objectives of Alignment & Authorship.

Encourage peer collaboration

Finally, a critical element is for your managers to work together so that the output of their respective teams creates synergy for the company. You could form a core operations group that meets periodically to discuss what their respective teams are doing. You could also give this group certain cross functional initiatives to work on to improve their collaboration. This will also give further credibility to the managers’ standing among other employees as key company resources.

After my last article, I realized that Middle management is an emotive topic and I have already received many different perspectives on the issue. Many people believe that creating the middle management layer will damage the collaborative culture of startups and create artificial hierarchies. Some people have also mentioned that startups should be at least a certain size before they should create a middle management layer. I would love to hear more and will follow this up with a consolidated set of responses!


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