Fighting for middle ground

Meet with vendors. Review assignments for the year. Submit service estimate to customer. Valorie Hartridge, director of marketing systems at Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc., proudly points out that she crossed that last item off her to-do list just the other day. "I like scratching things off," she says.

But it's not just personal satisfaction that drives her. When asked what's most critical to their survival, middle managers from a variety of companies and industries all agree that while management and technical skills are important, the amount of tangible work they accomplish is directly proportionate to their perceived value by upper management.

"When you get right down to it, it all comes down to delivering," says Bill Stanley, first vice president and manager of technology delivery services at Pittsburgh-based Mellon Financial Corp.

When companies laid off middle managers en masse a decade ago, many bosses saw the middle tier of management as a logical place to cut. Senior managers did the planning, the rank-and-file did the work and middle managers served as an extraneous bureaucratic buffer between the two.

But as technology has evolved into a strategic business tool, companies have found that they need people to connect the dots between the complex visions generated by senior management and the actual execution by IT workers.

"Bottom line: You need to fulfill your commitments," says Bob Marzulli, vice president of IT at New York-based MetLife Inc. But a middle manager can't just do the work, he adds. He needs to be a visionary himself to be able to anticipate future implications for projects and devise plans to tackle them effectively.

Managing Minutiae

Before taking his first management job three years ago, Bic Vogel, manager of Atlanta-based Delta Technology Inc.'s new infrastructure release program questioned the stability of a middle management position. But since then, he has seen how much he can bring to the table. "I think the middle manager stands in a unique position to . . . bring technology into the fabric of the business," Vogel says.

Still, the minutiae that goes into that can be overwhelming. Middle managers must communicate with and satisfy their managers, respond to end users and energize and nurture their employees. Then there are budgets, meetings and reports to tend to. They must hire new workers, juggle limited resources, stay on top of ever-evolving technology and anticipate future directions.

How do they do all this? "We extend our hours," says Stanley. "We're in early, we're out late."

But that's a personal choice, says Ann Turnbull, first vice president and manager of distributed architecture and telecommunications at Mellon. Most middle managers have a lot invested in their careers, and they take pride in running healthy organizations and delivering services, she says.

"That's one of the reasons we do the work - the challenge of that balance," she explains. "There's days when you certainly wonder if it will ever end, and there's days when it gets your adrenaline going."

That balance, however, can easily spiral into frustration since middle managers have responsibility for delivering but they don't have ultimate authority over what gets done and how. It can be tough to head down a path, figure everything out and then go to a meeting and learn that the path has been rerouted, says Vogel.

But change is an inevitable part of business, and it's best to ask questions, try to understand the rationale behind changes and then move on, adds Vogel. "I think one of the keys is understanding what the . . . executive level is dealing with," says Vogel. "Change is never well received unless you understand why."

That means middle managers not only have to manage those who report to them, but they also must communicate upward and manage the expectation of senior leaders., says Mike Keslar, who runs the technology delivery division for several lines of business at Mellon. "That's why we're in the middle," he says.

Balancing Act

Another trick is striking a balance between adhering to process and giving workers room for innovation, says Vogel. "The challenge is to deliver effective results in an efficient manner but not to stifle creativity," he says.

The best way to do that is to give workers the big picture, says Vogel. Explain the goals and parameters so they can focus on the destination while shifting the route to best fit their style.

He learned this lesson during one of his first staff meetings, when he formed two teams and asked them to come back to the next meeting with ideas for implementing two pieces of a new project. The teams came back with interesting ideas, but they were completely unaligned and inappropriate for the project's larger goals.

"If you're not clear about what you want done, look out. You never know what you're going to get back," Vogel warns. "Don't just communicate what needs to be done, but the whys."

Being clear about objectives also helps workers buy into a project and keeps them from falling behind, says Stephen Kessler, systems vice president at MetLife. "In a project that's moving fast, people can get lost," says Kessler, who is in charge of building MetLife's new customer relation system.

Marzulli, whom Kessler reports to, says that's one characteristic that makes Kessler so effective at his job. Too often, managers take ownership of projects and delegate tasks to their staffers, who focus solely on those tasks rather than making the end goal their priority. Kessler recalls what motivated him to excel and tries to provide the same motivation for his workers, says Marzulli.

But to keep employees motivated, don't forget about their career development, says Kessler. Be careful to avoid managing too many people. Make sure you're providing clear objectives, feedback and opportunities. And give people a reason to work as hard as you are, he advises.

But middle managers face more challenges than being stuck between workers and executives. Turnbull, who is in charge of Mellon's infrastructure technology, finds that her greatest challenge is juggling the projects of several users with limited resources. To save cash and time, she may take an element from one project, either a process or an actual piece of technology, and use it to meet the needs of other business units, which also helps keep everyone satisfied.

And it's not just a matter of responding to users' requests, says Hartridge. To be an effective middle manager, it's important to talk with customers to find opportunities to help them when they might not recognize those opportunities themselves.

"I'm always listening," she says. "Not so much for the things that are said, but for the potential."

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Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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