Five Easy Pieces — Steve Jobs was wrong about middle management

Growing companies desperately need good managers

Executive summary

In the startup communities of Silicon Valley and Shenzhen, management is a four-letter word. Bearing the brunt of disdain is middle management, supposedly deadweight offering nothing by way of value and instead being a time and energy suck for the staff that actually produces. Yet the reality is that for a startup attempting to grow beyond its seed phase requires competent managers to grow new teams and departments. Startups that don’t hire, and then trust the managers of their teams, run the risk of losing a sense of meaning, as well as condemning their business to fail to adjust to a dynamic market and the needs of its users.

Growing companies desperately need good managers

The trope

Iconic business leaders including Elon Musk and Steve Jobs have argued the view of middle management as removed from the end product, a role that adds nothing of value while restricting the actions and behaviors of the teams engaged in production. "Companies, as they grow to become multi-billion-dollar entities, somehow lose their vision,” goes an old Steve Jobs quote. “They insert lots of layers of middle management between the people running the company and the people doing the work. They no longer have an inherent feel or a passion about the products. The creative people, who are the ones who care passionately, have to persuade five layers of management to do what they know is the right thing to do."

No top without a middle

The cause of lost vision and inflexibility in an organisation might just as well be due to a lack of middle management, rather than too much of it. Formulating vision is the job of top management; implementing it the role of middle management. Without the middle, top management has to engage in execution and end up in a position without the distance, nor time, required to formulating a coherent vision for the company. A company without middle managers will not have a clear, compelling vision and is not just likely to fail as a business but also to fail at inspiring its organization.

Implementation

Part of the influence of middle management comes from their ability to create structure and process. MIT’s Paul Osterman, who has spent decades analysing the role of managers in large organisations, identified several responsibilities of middle managers. Their roles are varied, spanning from the formation of teams and the smooth day to day running, to serving as ambassadors. They allow for the execution of the organisation’s overall message and, perhaps most vitally, they serve as the connecting part between the top leadership and the company’s staff. A Wharton study from a few years ago found that middle managers are the most influential group in the organisation when it comes to innovation. That matters, because a recent study from Cambridge University found that ideas originating from middle managers were much more likely to be supported than those that originate from the top. Without the steadying hand of a capable middle management layer, attempting to implement strategy is like pushing on a string.

Impact and direction

Middle managers are in the unique position where they are close to production, but not producing themselves, so retain the distance required to make decisions. In a research paper “People and Process: Suits and Innovators: Individuals and Firm Performance.”, Ethan Mollick highlights that management plays a vital role in setting the direction of company activities. Through examining the middle management role of the producer in the computer games industry, Mollick asserts: “It’s amazing that the effect of these middle managers on a project is not only larger than the creative people, but larger than the rest of the organization.” In fact, tech companies find middle management so important that they created their very own type: the product manager.

Creating meaning

The middle manager is their reports’ connection to the heart of the company. Without this connection, employees are directionless in their work, and without direction there is no sense of meaning to work. A good manager gives projects a context by explaining how they matter to the company’s broader vision. Moreover, they work bidirectionally and help their team to communicate feedback upwards to influence their own working environment, develop their careers, and as a result feel like their feedback is taken into consideration by the company. A good manager ultimately improves team performance and reduces attrition, as we all know we leave managers, not companies.


Edit: A comment on this article posted on Hacker News:

Steve didn't believe most of the stuff he said. I used to work for him, and he got monthly reports from his PR firm. One section each month was filled with pages of quotes for him to say to be perceived as a visionary. He used them regularly, and most of his most well known quotes came from those pages. They were completely unrelated to the way we were doing things. And, obviously, we had plenty of middle managers.