Gemma was pondering recently that marzipan seems to generate a similar response to marmite; you either love it or hate it.
In baking, it forms a critical barrier between the icing and the cake, preventing moisture from spoiling the icing or sugar leaching into the cake. In business, the layer of middle management sitting below the board and above the ‘workers’ are dubbed the marzipan layer and they don’t receive a good press. They are seen as a barrier to the flow of ideas and inspiration generated by the executive level teaching the workers and conversely preventing information about what’s going on at the front-line from reaching the leaders. You only have to refer to popular culture to see how Ricky Gervais portrayed the mocked middle manager David Brent in The Office.
We at Rambutan have sympathy with these much-maligned middle managers. They’re often overworked (the CIPD Working Lives Survey found that 35% of middle managers said they had too much work to do), isolated from the board, not invested in with training and development and not listened to.
Senior leaders should also take a long hard look at themselves: are they properly cascading information from the top? Is there a clear, strategic narrative that is communicated to and understood by all the team? Are there formal and informal feedback mechanisms to facilitate communication and learning? We could go on!
We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been told that managers have been promoted due to technical excellence but are struggling with their new managerial responsibilities. We believe that the skills needed to become an excellent manager can be taught and developed – they‘re not a happy accident.
Obviously, there’s a time and resource cost to investing in training and development, but studies show that you’ll be justly rewarded for your input. A paper published by psychologists from Stanford entitled ‘The Value of Bosses’ demonstrated that swapping a poorly-performing manager for a skilled one increased productivity by 12%. Adding a new member to the team (which were typically around 9 strong) only resulted in an increase of 11%; this being a far more expensive option.
So, here are our five top tips for supporting this marzipan layer:
- Don’t simply promote people to management because they are technical experts. Consider whether they have the right management aptitudes and think about offering career paths for both management and technical experts
- Train and educate like you would for any other skill. This doesn’t mean a 2-day programme that is run once and then long forgotten. It’s about help, support, coaching and guidance that is drip fed over a long period
- Ask your managers what policies and processes are getting in the way of them doing a good job. You want them having conversations with their staff, not spending their time filling in onerous forms or completing paperwork
- Rather than stripping out middle management as a cost-saving exercise, recognise the important impact they can have on productivity
- Celebrate your managers and the good job they do. Give praise and recognition about the contribution they make to your business and recognise the difficulties they face
Rather than a barrier to information and creativity, middle managers should be seen as facilitators of productivity and service excellence. Learn to love your marzipan layer!