Middle Management and the Dark Pit

I just finished reading a book called “It’s Your Ship” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.  It’s a great read, particularly for anyone who finds themselves working as a middle manager.  Most people think of middle management in negative terms.  Middle managers are often thought of as people who haven’t been able to achieve executive status. Yet, there are many of us who find middle management a good fit for our gifts and talents.  It’s people like us that are able to “stand in the gap” where executive orders need to be translated into something the average team member can understand and execute in a way that accommodates numerous factors higher-level managers can’t appreciate. As Captain Abrashoff puts it:

“The gray areas, in fact, are one reason we need mid-level managers.  If everything were black and white, organizations would need only chief executives to make the rules and workers to carry them out without questions.  Mid-level managers should be the ones to survey the gray areas and provide direction.”

I want to explore this “gray area” many middle managers function in on a daily basis.  It’s probably one of the most dangerous areas in business one has to navigate and it can make or break how an organization performs.  I was reminded of this perilous space recently while watching a movie called “Grayhound” starring Tom Hanks.  The movie follows a Navy Captain named Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks’ character) and is situated just months after the United States was bombed at Perl Harbor.  Hank’s character is commanding a group of international ships that must cross the Mid-Atlantic Gap also knows as the “Black Pit.”  This area of cross Atlantic travel was exceptionally dangerous because of the number of German U-Boats that harassed ships as they attempted to deliver cargo and men to Europe for the war effort.  In the movie, Hank’s team of international battleships had to protect a convoy carrying troops and supplies to Liverpool England.  The reason this area of trans-Atlantic travel was so dangerous is that the allied forces in Europe and the United States could not provide air support in this stretch of the ocean.  Without air support, the ships were exceptionally vulnerable to submarine attacks by the Germans for at least three days.  As the movie unfolds you see how Hank’s character has to make quick decisions, navigate dangerous water, engage the enemy, and do everything possible to limit the amount of damage the convoy they were protecting sustained.  It is a great movie and it leaves you on the edge of your seat for at least sixty of the ninety minutes you watch.  More importantly, it reminds you of how important it is to have solid people working in the “gray area” of life.

This movie works as a great metaphor for describing the life of middle managers.  The mission created by the executive team is clear when understood in the pristine world of a boardroom or conference room.  I’m not implying executive leadership is naive or unaware that this gray area exists, rather I’m saying no one at that stage of strategic development could possibly account for the numerous ways things need to happen for the objective to be reached.  Middle management’s job is to protect the “convoy” and make sure it arrives in Liverpool England with as little damage as possible.  Middle managers are familiar with receiving these types of orders.  It may not be as sexy as protecting a convoy of ships, but it may be just as important.  The order you receive will most likely sound more like, “We need to cut production costs by 10% but still provide a quality product to our customers with as little damage to our customer satisfaction ratings as possible.”  Middle managers need to make that directive work while continuing to keep their team members motivated, the production line flowing, and handle any issues that pop up.  It’s this gray area that makes people in middle management thrive.  Middle managers must be comfortable with ambiguity, demonstrate moral courage to do what needs to be done when what needs to be done isn’t easily identified, and take the heat when things don’t go well.  You can’t be a coward if you’re going to survive as a middle manager.

Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time digging into the characteristics and skills necessary for functioning well in the middle level of any organization.  Perhaps you’re like me and find that part of the organization’s structure a place that challenges you in a positive way.  Maybe you’re like Captain Krause in charge of the battleship known as “Grayhound” and you’re willing to bravely go where there is little air cover yet the opportunity to do something good for a greater purpose is ready for a person like you to take command.  If so, you’re in the right spot because together, we can explore what it takes to be a successful middle manager.  I look forward to going into the “dark pit” with you over the next couple of weeks.

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