Neglect managers at your peril
It’s time middle managers and their work are more appreciated in media.
I have noticed that whenever we talk about the workforce there is a tendency to focus on either leaders or new entrants.
Captivated by a bias in favour of leadership as an aspirational subject on the one hand and mesmerised by the changemaking potential of youth on the other.
As a result, we have come to increasingly fail to appreciate, and even neglect, both the vital importance of middle managers and the discipline of management itself.
People know there is a problem
The Media Leader Debate at The Future of Media on 12 October invited delegates to discuss and vote for the issues they most wanted the publication to focus on and campaign for over the next year.
In the final session Nick Manning (media agency founder/consultant), Mick Buckley (former CNBC president, EMEA) and myself were in the privileged position of being invited to contribute to the discussion before the very final and deciding vote.
It was no surprise to me that the Talent Crisis had made it to the final list of issues up for discussion.
What was striking, however, was the enthusiastic reaction of the audience when I made an impassioned plea to stop neglecting the middle management group, which I described as ‘the value creating work horse of every enterprise’.
It obviously struck a chord.
The industry favours the young
We know about the industry’s long-term addiction to cheaper, youthful talent.
It is a matter of public record that the age demographic of the industry is utterly distorted in favour of under 30-year-olds.
This is not just because it’s cheaper to employ newcomers, but perhaps also because they have historically been more willing to sacrifice their work-life balance.
Not yet burdened with mortgages and the demands of family life, naturally ambitious and energetic, the younger end of the workforce has been relied on to demonstrate commitment by being willing and able to work late and at weekends.
Under 30-year-olds have changed
However, something significant has happened over the past few years to challenge that assumption. Nowadays under 30-year-olds are more prepared to leave their jobs when they feel overworked and unhappy. I suspect this is partly because they belong to ‘Generation Rent’ with less at stake if they feel pushed to hand in their notice.
Locked out of the housing market by high prices they are arguably more sanguine in their assessment of the risks of changing jobs.
What’s more, the opportunity to freelance has become commonplace, so they know they are more likely to pick up work in between permanent jobs. Whilst there is uncertainty and projects may be piecemeal, it is likely to be better remunerated.
So, the trade-off between having a secure income and choosing to work on your own terms has shifted in favour of autonomy.
Constant stress is no fun
Workload mismanagement, which seems to be endemic at the moment, is taking the joy out of work.
If people’s workloads are not managed properly, they also become less productive and eventually burnout.
I suspect that ever since there was a move to the idea of using ‘time’ as the basis for compensation, there has been a failure to manage people’s time properly. There is a lack of honesty about how long things may take to do.
Additionally, the cost of failure and reworking that naturally occurs in a creative industry is not sufficiently factored in.
As a result, pressure can mount on anyone who takes longer than the original scope described when the job was priced, and they feel they have to personally absorb the additional work out of normal working hours.
Time is a debased currency
Units of time give the allure of the possibility of the almost scientific approach to deploying resources.
And yet, as we know, eliciting creativity in thinking, and positive relationships between people, doesn’t always flourish against a ticking clock. There are as many different ways of solving a problem as there are people able to do it.
I understand the difficulty of trying to predict the way an assignment will play out. It is hard to estimate.
However, what I do know is that client organisations do not think about their marketing resources in terms of ‘units of time’ so there is a mismatch in attitude to how ‘time spent’ is being accounted for on either side of the fence.
Management is a skill that should be taught
It has never been easy to manage time, tasks, and people. It takes skill to develop a productive relationship with a customer, create a team that works well together, design good working practices, develop people’s talents, and get work delivered on time and on budget.
The dramatic change in working practices in recent years, which are expected to be both flexible and inclusive, has made the job even more challenging.
And yet the people responsible for navigating all these competing demands have been consistently undervalued and neglected in our sector.
It speaks volumes that few people I speak to have even heard of the Chartered Management Institute or are aware of the management professional qualifications they offer.
Expediency has removed a vital layer
There are a number of factors that have caused the loss of middle managers. One is that when cost cutting has been required in a downturn, there has been a tendency to make disproportionately more of the middle management layer redundant.
No doubt a convincing argument is that it creates opportunity for others to ‘step up’. And, in theory at least, clients will notice a big reduction of people more quickly.
So as long as they still hold onto their favourite board director, who still has a reasonably sized team underneath them, the middle ranking manager layer has seemed more disposable.
Another factor has been the lack of flexibility offered to working parents who choose not to return after parental leave.
Not forgetting the straightforward ageism of an industry that feels reinvigorated by youthful energy.
Managers are vital in times of change
When I was at Aviva, the embedded HR practices protected middle managers during periods of organisational change and restructuring.
When headcount had to be reduced, for whatever reason, the HR department applied rigorous proportionality at every level in its application.
Every function was expected to adhere to a pre-ordained shape which, if anything, favoured the management layer above the expensive leadership level.
In my experience, in spite of how they were spoken about, client companies tend to value their management level much more than the media and advertising sector.
It was recognised that you need the reliance, experience, and deep knowledge of middle managers to implement any transformational change.
A change in mindset is needed
The flexibility of modern working practices works both ways. Companies can get away with fewer staff on their books, but people are equally free to pick and choose where they work.
The old model of commitment, loyalty and hard work being given in return for rapid promotion prospects in an enjoyable job has been disrupted.
To focus only on the financials, pushing for growth and healthy profit margins loses sight of why talented people come to work.
Of course, the commercial side is important, but so too is enjoying what you do and not feeling overwhelmed by an unrealistic workload.
This is why good managers are so vital. It’s time we put some status and pride back into the importance of management.
It’s a skill we be particularly relying on during these volatile times. Talented people are happier and more likely to stay in a well-run operation.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.
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