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Navigating the mid-level management dilemma

Navigating the mid-level management dilemma

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Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:26 IST
Last Updated : 14 April 2024, 00:26 IST
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India’s corporate sector grapples with a unique challenge: a severe dearth of mid-level managers (MLM), a situation further complicated by employee expectations that often go beyond the traditional managerial role. These expectations encompass project oversight and development, personal mentorship, and involvement in conflict resolution, placing a significant burden on existing management resources.

My experiences across diverse organisational cultures, from the structured corridors of GE and Tata to the fluid dynamics of start-ups, have offered me a panoramic view of the evolving role of mid-level management in India’s corporate ecosystem. Indian organisations typically have significant entry-level hiring and need a programme manager or mentor for every seven employees to guide projects and support newcomers, a people manager for every 15 employees to oversee daily operations and team harmony, and a general manager for every seven teams, totalling 100-150 employees, mirroring the Dunbar limit. This tiered system ensures effective management, fosters community, and efficiently navigates the complexities of India’s younger workforce.

At GE, our introduction of a technical career path revealed many Indian employees’ preference for technical roles over managerial duties such as annual appraisals or funding intricacies, showing that not all aspire to be managers. I have observed across Indian MNCs a different risk -- that of becoming a ‘babu’ manager, emphasising the need for mid-level managers to evolve and continue to add hands-on value. As part of the start-up ecosystem, I recognise that the challenge for mid-level managers is to redefine leadership, foster innovation and agility by decoupling influence from traditional hierarchy, and create opportunities for driving change.

The Imperative for MLMs

Developing and empowering mid-level managers is critical across India’s corporate landscape. Their role, particularly in product companies, demands a nuanced understanding and a multifaceted approach to leadership that extends beyond conventional management paradigms. Critical for the mid-level manager’s success are:

1. Being a Talent Magnet: To attract employees, managers must have a reputation for innovation, leadership, and delivery. This is especially true in a start-up ecosystem, where the perceived security of a large company is not on offer.

2. Employee-First Approach: Drawing from the start-up ethos, where the lack of hierarchy requires direct engagement and innovation, it’s clear that prioritising employee success and engagement is key to fostering a culture of innovation.

3. Grooming Future Leaders: GE’s legacy of leadership development taught me the importance of identifying and nurturing future leaders. This is not just about succession planning but ensuring the organisation’s long-term vitality and competitiveness.

4. Managing Upwards and Downwards: In Indian MNCs, it is important to proactively manage one’s career to avoid becoming a ‘babu.’ Effective mid-level management means focusing on your team’s growth and success as the priority while also adeptly managing upward relationships.

5. Continued Hands-on Contributions: It remains vital for mid-level managers to keep their hands on the pulse of core technical or business areas. This hands-on engagement enhances their credibility among team members and keeps them grounded in the operational realities of their domains. This ensures managers maintain a sharp, front-line perspective, enabling them to make more informed decisions and inspire their teams by example.

6. Effective and Early Delegation: The essence of delegation lies in strategic empowerment, a lesson I learned through observing the hesitancy among technical experts at GE to transition into managerial roles. Effective leaders delegate not out of necessity but as a strategic tool to foster trust and nurture talent.

7. Proactive, Transparent Communication: Whether in the structured environment of large companies or the dynamic landscape of start-ups, the ability to transparently articulate strategy, expectations, and feedback is crucial for alignment and cohesion.

The landscape of mid-level management in India is transforming and is driven by changing workforce dynamics and organisational structures. A nuanced approach to leadership development would enable mid-level managers to transcend administrative roles and become strategic enablers capable of propelling India’s corporate sector towards innovation and growth.

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