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Managing Middle Managers

Help valuable middle managers bring out the best in your business.

A decade ago, middle managers were reviled as resource-hogging deadwood, and companies eliminated countless middle management jobs in a frenzy of de-layering. Today, however, that's turned around, and entrepreneurs such as Brad Heath are making sure that their managers in the middle are numerous, skilled and motivated enough to help their companies grow.

"They're very important because I can't focus on all the different areas that they do and give those adequate attention," says Heath, founder and CEO of VirTex Assembly Services Inc., a $10 million Austin, Texas, electronics manufacturing company that includes a dozen middle managers on its 45-person payroll. "If I try to do that, I can't focus on my mission, which is charting the direction of the company," explains Heath, 44.

One reason for middle managers' renaissance is that millions of baby boomer midlevel managers will soon be reaching retirement age, says Vince Thompson, a Los Angeles middle manager and author of Ignited: Managers, Light Up Your Company and Career for More Power, More Purpose and More Success. Another is the realization that they play key roles in helping companies manage change and communicate with customers--two areas of concern today. "They're more critical to the success of a company than ever before," says Thompson. "And they're in shorter supply than they have ever been."

Heath says that in his experience, it's not as hard to fill jobs such as director of engineering or materials manager these days. However, he has noticed a change in the work that managers perform. "The big difference is our managers don't just manage," he says. "They also perform a job function, doing actual work in their areas." Rather than spending all day looking at spreadsheets and generating reports, he says, an engineering director typically spends 60 percent of a shift in the engineering area helping to solve customer problems or doing line-type work.

Because their new workstyle puts them closer to employees and customers, midlevel managers often have a better sense of an organization's strengths and weaknesses than top executives do, Thompson says.

To get the most out of these vital employees, Thompson says entrepreneurs need to meet with them face-to-face rather than limiting encounters to e-mails and group conferences. "They need to connect with their managers," he says. Entrepreneurs should listen to managers' concerns and make sure managers understand job expectations. Recognition is also critical, Thompson says, because many middle managers become alienated from their organizations after mass de-layerings, sharp increases in the number of people reporting to them and new responsibilities for line-type work.

This takes more time than money. Heath says he spends 20 percent of his time training employees promoted from line functions to handle managerial tasks. Hiring experienced managers from outside can save time, at the somewhat greater risk that they won't fit in.

Midlevel managers may have been resurrected, but they aren't going to do every job in a company, Thompson cautions. They are there to translate the company vision and motivate line workers to execute it. Formulating the vision remains the entrepreneurs' role, in addition to resolving conflicts, providing resources and giving the pats on the back necessary to keep a company's vital middle management effective and happy in their jobs.

At VirTex, Heath sees his growing company adding another level of management specialists before long. But he doesn't expect any of them to be the pure managers of yore. "I don't think we'll ever have someone whose sole job is just supervising," he says. "I think those days are gone."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author ofNot Just a Living.

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This article was originally published in the March 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Go-Betweens.

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