The Limbo of Middle Management

The classic corporate pyramid structure filters out a few chosen people from middle management who then become senior executives. Do the best people always wind up rising to those positions? Why are there so few women in senior positions when women occupy about half of all positions in middle management? Experts say that more and more people these days prefer to reconcile their family life with their work life rather than assume greater commitments and sacrifice a greater portion of their time to a corporation that can dispose of their services overnight.

Road to the Top

Juan Carlos Cubeiro, who founded the Eurotalent coaching firm, is also a professor at the University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain. He explains that “the traditional approach to management consisted of a pyramidal model in which employees rose step by step to reach senior managerial posts.” For Cristina Simon, professor of human resources at the Instituto de Empresa business school in Spain, this system filters out those people who reach the highest management positions. That’s because the number of available positions is always very small compared with the number of middle management posts. Maite Fuentes, managing partner at Development Systems, a consulting firm, agrees. In theory, this sort of system should guarantee “that the best people reach” senior management positions, Fuentes adds. But this kind of system is not as reliable as it appears because other factors have an influence, such as the availability of people who will accept managerial responsibilities.

As Cubeiro notes, “When you look at a pyramid, the number of people at the top is always lower than the number at the base. Nowadays, that organizational model has become obsolete. In addition, certain qualities are required for joining a management board, compared with [the qualities required for] managing a team with fewer responsibilities, which contributes less to corporate earnings. So not every mid-level manager can — or wants to — play a role in corporate senior management.” Moreover, belonging to a managerial board or managing a department in such a competitive, demanding, and global environment, Cubeiro adds, can be so demanding that it “requires greater involvement in terms of time, as well as skills” that may be lacking in some people. “Not everyone is ready to pay the price for being a senior manager, and not everyone has those qualities.”

In the traditional system that still operates in many companies, you run the risk that there are many middle managers “who have risen to their positions because they are the best salesmen or best technicians,” says Maite Fuentes. After all, those are the requirements needed for managing a team. In those cases, he notes, “the company not only loses a good technician but also gains a bad manager.” The people who get to the very top are those who have the skills to analyze their co-workers and help them achieve their professional expectations. Some sectors, such as high technology, are not based so much on a vertical hierarchy, but on a more horizontal structure whose goal is specialization, and which recognizes the efforts of middle managers by providing them with other incentives, explain the experts.

New Kinds of Skills

Cristina Simon believes that a change is also taking place in the decision making process in moving up the pyramidal structure. “Professional careers are very equally matched because employees are all highly qualified,” says Simon. In her opinion, other criteria now serve as the key to passing through the filter that opens the door to senior management positions. These factors include whether a person is available to sacrifice part of his or her personal life and free time; whether he or she knows several languages; and whether he or she has international experience. Fuentes adds other skills to this list, such as business vision and the ability to see the company from a global perspective. Not every middle level manager is prepared to do that.

According to Cubeiro, “The paradox is that the factors that help to promote people to a certain level are not very valuable when it comes to a higher level. Middle management positions are known for their technical skills and for skills involved in executing tactical operations such as manufacturing, finance and marketing. But when managers reach a certain level, they do not fail because of a shortage of technical skills. It is because they lack strategic vision; they are unable to work in teams; and they are insensitive to other people. As a result, such competencies as authentic leadership, conceptual thought, and skill at anticipating and communicating all combine to form a glass ceiling between those managers who have no chance to get promoted and those managers who can act effectively.”

Until recently, Cubeiro notes, talent was viewed as something that was fixed. You either had talent or you did not. “People who were selected for higher responsibilities were provided with training that kept them up to date in areas where it was necessary. Nowadays, we know that talent is something dynamic, and that knowledge is something that has a life cycle of two and a half years.” According to Cubeiro, companies should guarantee a proper cultural environment and provide indispensable training for assuming responsibility. They should complement all that with other techniques for personal development, such as coaching. “The best companies promote from within in more than 80% of all cases,” Cubeiro says.

Not Everyone Wants to be a Senior Executive

In other cases, say the experts, it is the middle managers themselves who want to be promoted to a position that requires greater responsibilities. Simon believes that geographical mobility is a key factor when it comes to personal development, but that not everyone is ready to make the sacrifices that come with moving to another location. As a result, it is harder for those people [who refuse to move] to reach positions of senior management.

Fuentes goes further, asserting that the number of people who are ready to occupy these very demanding positions is much lower than one might think at first. “More and more people want to bring greater harmony into their lives; they want to spend fewer hours on the job and spend more time on their families.” They don’t work as hard to get appointed to a senior position where they would have to devote a greater portion of their time to the organization. Before taking a job, candidates are concerned more about the work schedule and vacation time than they are about the possibilities for getting promoted. In that regard, companies have also changed a great deal. Nowadays, “they do not guarantee a job for life,” as they did a few years ago. Globalization as well as corporate mergers and acquisitions mean that people can “wind up in the street.” This factor has served as a deterrent among middle managers “who prefer to invest their time in their family rather than spend their entire life in a company that can fire them at any moment.”

Simon notes another very common trend among middle managers that does not attract a great deal of attention – the decision to   “abandon the big corporations in favor of smaller companies where the key criterion is not so much salary as the power to make decisions.” Some professionals prefer to join small or midsize companies that have less prestige but where they have much greater decision-making power that is appropriate to their experience.

Masculine and Feminine Career Paths

Experts say that important differences still exist between the career paths of men and women. Whereas the typical male career path moves upward continuously, the female path involves an interruption between the ages of 30 and 40. Statistics also show that although a significant percentage of middle managers are women, women still have only a very limited presence in senior management.

Cubeiro says that “unfortunately, while half of middle managers in many companies are men and half are women, the situation is terribly unequal in senior management, where seven out of every eight professionals are men.” This treatment, adds, “which is so unfair, results from a series of circumstances, such as managerial boards’ decisions to choose ‘one of their own kind’ using such criteria as seniority, personal affinity and similar educational background. Another factor is that when many women reach a certain age, they decide to invest more time in their family, rather than step on the accelerator of their professional career. The reality is that many bosses from the old school also feel uncomfortable with a leadership style that is more versatile and more akin to feminine talents, so they block the arrival of women.”

Adds Cubeiro: “You can prove this point simply by noting that of the 60 most highly respected executives in Spain, only seven are women. These executives have special qualities and are very much admired by those people who know them. As a result, those women who rise to top positions in private- and public-sector organizations usually offer a very special sort of competency at the highest level. This is not something that can be said about all those males who have great social visibility. This shows that they have very different career paths.”

To one degree or another, that opinion is shared by Simon and Fuentes. They recognize that, in many cases, it is the woman who is not interested in taking on a job that has greater responsibilities. “Many women are not interested in entering the world of senior management because they are not tempted by the final payoff: status and social recognition,” notes Simon. For Fuentes, there are several explanations for the shortage of female senior executives. On the one hand, today’s senior managers began their professional career several years ago, when women had yet to be brought into the world of work, either in operational departments or the kinds of positions that offered promotions. “They did not have the same opportunities,” he states. “But new generations who are achieving middle management positions will be brought into senior management over the next decade.”

Maternity is another factor that limits the progress of a professional career, not only because it interrupts a career for a period of time, but also because there are many women who ask for a reduced workday that involves devoting less time to the company. “This does not help women since, when all is said and done, the company can count on males because they are the ones who have devoted themselves 100%” to the company, says Fuentes. When you consider the feminine role within the nucleus of the family and the overall distribution of family responsibilities, women still play a greater role.

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