Middle Managers: Transition to Management

Middle management, comprised of first-line supervisors to associate-directors, is the largest and most powerful group of white-collar workers in the corporate sector. It is surprising to find that although middle-managers sustain the organization, many leaders appear to overlook or minimize the dynamic role of this integral group who:

  • represent a significant financial investment for a corporation in salaries, value of output, production investment and maintenance expenditures;
  • experience continuing upheaval while being ignored, punished and blamed for corporate excess;
  • stand caught between career-driven senior managers and associates seeking security;
  • fill the courts with workers’ complaints:  replacing unions with private counsel;
  • during their work life will transition between four to nine different careers;
  • attract struggling women returning to work, experienced older workers, and young entry-level college graduates;
  • enforce the culture, implement the systems, and present the firm to the world as the backbone of the company

Leaders dedicated to building a sustainable organization incorporating long-term value to their strategic plans are wise to tap into the knowledge and experience of this group. Perhaps you can gain a glimmer of a new idea to harness the power of middle managers by considering my twenty years experience.

A Passion

Who are the middle managers that inhabit our corporations, small businesses and nonprofits today?  Take this little test to see if you fall into the ranks of this often-blamed and typically disenfranchised group:

  1. Are you charged with carrying out decisions made by upper management that affect the job responsibilities of the staff at a level below you?
  2. Is your position subject to dissolution during budget tightening, when quality performers tend to jump ship to prevent damaging their resume?
  3. Do you avoid risky situations such as taking action when you notice a dysfunctional area that could benefit from an intervention and change?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, you are a middle manager.  It may not be a popular role in our success-driven society, but you are in the majority and among good company.

For the past twenty years, beginning with graduate studies in Labor Education, I have focused on this much-maligned group and found them not only fascinating, but an often untapped and underappreciated powerhouse that can make or break the success of any company.

From knowledge professionals to managers at a food manufacturing plant, members of this morphing, impactful group represents all ages, backgrounds and nationalities.

The question is:  do you consider yourself a part of Middle-Management?  If so, we would like to know how you view your role.  Please share any ideas you have on how we can better focus the enegery and resoucres of this critical segment of the workforce. How can companies be certain to maximize the investment in this flucturating reserve of reliable talent?

Introduction to Transition to Management

The Transition to Management series was first introduced to two global pharmaceutical firms in the early 1980’s. Since that time, over 6,000 executives at these firms have completed the on-going program, which has been well received at dozens of major and mid-size firms in North and South America.

During the first two years of the program, the content was similar to offerings in most universities.  Seminar participants were recently promoted men assigned to attend the course.   Dressed in the corporate uniform of white shirt, dark suit and subdued ties, many had MBA degrees and previously attended corporate-sponsored seminars introducing management theory.  Reflective of the era, participant remarks were male-centric; sexist comments and inappropriate joking typically ended after the first hour of the seminar.

By the third year of the seminar, corporate cultures and work environments underwent a revolution and the seminar found its heart.  Three major issues had a significant impact on class dynamics:

  1. New Leaders   “Cradle to grave jobs” became a thing of the past and unions became less powerful as white-collar jobs increased and participative management became popular.
  2. Seminar Participants. Corporate jobs were now temporary positions, horizontal growth prepared members to accept multiple jobs in their career and to meet changing job requirements.
  3. Building New Skills.  Technological evolution caused changed the way information is gathered and distributed.  Women join the workforce at all levels in search of leadership positions.

New Leaders

In the 1980’s the overriding complaint from employees was that the company had abandoned them:  ‘cradle to grave jobs’ were no more.   Many expressed feelings of isolation and uncertainty of their future.  The seminar provided a secure and confidential forum to tell their stories.  By sharing and listening, each member gained a broader perspective of the corporate environment and obtained the feedback necessary to find their place in the changing culture.

It was during this period that unions were on the decline.  Upward mobility by assuming a white-collar job became a viable opportunity for more men and women.  Highly skeptical former union members were sent to training programs to prepare to accept positions of managerial authority. For many, this transition would mark them as the first member of their family to work in a white-collar environment.

Another group to seek entrance into the white-collar job market was women and members of ethnic and social minority groups. Affirmative action and diversity programs were developed to assist this group assimilate into the workforce.  For these individuals, successful transition into a middle-management job would change their lives and their family’s lives forever.

Once committed to the transition process, the participants wanted to jump in and succeed.  Inspired by their drive to quickly function on a level equal to or above the skill of current managers, sections on human relationships, power, and diversity were added to the course. The newly popular Participative-Style of management appeared tailor-made for this generation as a tool to develop trust between employee and manager.  Scenario-based videos, simulations and exercises proved the valuable by enabling prospective managers to test themselves, identify necessary competences, and develop personal models of success.

Seminar Participants

Workers quickly recognized that in the corporate world of the 1980’s the biggest revolution affected them directly:  their role and their work were temporary.  There was less upward promotion, with a push toward acquiring the horizontal growth necessary to prepare to work through multiple jobs during one’s career.

Knowledge and relationships became the key to success. Who better to talk to than peers, colleagues and others who had learning experiences to share?  Group exercises, games, case studies and role-plays became essential tools to explore the background, perspective and experience of other group members.

The best discussions took place among group members with the greatest variety of experience and skill levels.  I sought to mix members of different job levels, function areas, locales, and years with the company to bring in a wide range of perceptions and experiences. Attendee’s range from First–line supervisors to Directors: new hires, the newly promoted, those seeking promotion and managers who have worked for the company for more than ten years.

Voluntary attendance required phone or Internet registration with a manager’s approval.  A few participants stated that they were told to attend by their boss or were obligated to satisfy a newly created succession plan. Personal motivations to select the course varied considerably with recent promotions being the most common.  The numbers of participants preparing themselves to request a promotion were about equal to the number of seasoned managers seeking a quick check to see “how I’m doing.”  More than twenty-five percent of the members of a typical class are highly technical or specialized individuals such as physicians, physicists, engineers, sales and IT people who may have some basic management training.

Building New Skills

Today, employers are losing post-war baby boomers as they retire from the workforce.  In the 1980’s these boomers were the talent firms needed to move into the next century.

Technology eliminated the need for secretaries as word processing and personal computers heralded a new distribution of responsibilities. In the mid-1980’s, a significant number of women attend the Transition seminars who were advancing from secretarial or administrative assistant positions, shifting discussion from the role of manager to the perception of others toward the a newly promoted manager.

Classroom discussion often uncovered issues by men unhappy with the growing numbers of professional who felt that women were taking jobs away from “male breadwinners.” Traditional American male workers appeared to be a target, as women and minorities joined the workforce.

In the classroom these social and cultural issues became apparent as the unaddressed undercurrent of performance and disciplinary issues.  By combining new hires with those seeking to update their skills, the environment provides a valuable opportunity to explore fundamental concerns.  Structured exercises and small group work encouraged a free-range of emotions, encouraging both dissension and humor to reveal universal commonalities.  Participants recognized the importance of building bridges, forming communication networks and preventing work in isolation.

To enable participants to explore critical relationships issues, every session of a transitions program must be uniquely tailored to the needs of the current group members.  The goal must be focused on their success.  Every participant should be given the tools to develop confidence in their talent, the freedom to accept risk, and the skill to drive their personal plan to succeed.

Ten-year Mark

By the time the seminar had been offered for ten years, the entire program had transformed into a dedicated individual and group development initiative.  The seminar administrator’s role has assumed the tasks of a coach more often than facilitator.   Most important to the seminar’s continued success is that the core concepts continued to provide a sound foundation offering current management and interpersonal communication concepts.

The biggest adjustment was that the seminar was now offered as a two-day highly intensive and interactive session. Transition to Management I (tm1) is followed by six months of participant- initiated coaching and networking, then a one-day workshop titled Transiton to Management II (tm2).

The 100-page workbook created for the initial two-day seminar is updated every six to eight months to acknowledge talent’s changing role and maintain alignment with the organization’s development. Coaching during the interim period may include conference call between the administrator and several participants to uncover options that would best address the initiator’s need. To accommodate participant schedules, TM2, the one-day workshop, may have representatives from any earlier session of TM1.  Participants are welcome to repeat attendance at a TM2 workshop without charge at any time it is offered.

As international firms grew into global enterprises, the participants reflected the growing corporate cultures.  Almost half the participants attending each session were employees of international origin who spoke English as a second or third language. New cultures, mores and relationships continue to be openly discussed as employees to share their personal stories.


Men and women from different nationalities, backgrounds, and experiences who have accepted the challenge to succeed as business professionals while balancing work and home life deserve a forum to test their skills while reviewing their knowledge.

Programs such as Transition to Management are vital to encourage, assimilate and retain talented middle managers.  The most valuable resource we can give a potential new hire, the newly promoted, or a manager seeking to renew skills is to provide the tools to evaluate personal success.

To sustain quality performance in our organizations, we must support those who are willing to take a risk by exposing them to what others have encountered.  Knowing what to anticipate, they can prepare for common events.  Accepting the transition as a dynamic phase of life gives them the confidence to work through the unexpected and exciting opportunities before them.