Give your middle manager the responsibility of a CEO

14 February 2024

Middle managers must be freed up to lead rather than being the wimpy layer between management and employees.

They are often under fire - both from above and below. Middle managers are squeezed like a louse between management and employees and, at worst, are not respected by either party.

It's a shame. Because the importance of middle managers to an organization is vastly underestimated. When the role works, they are the glue that binds organizations together and bridges the gap between top management and frontline employees. Middle managers are crucial to establishing and maintaining strong values, a healthy company culture, and overall meaning-driven leadership that employees understand and can relate to.

But the role is challenging - the most difficult in an organization, in my opinion - because it takes a unique skill set to balance loyalty, especially in difficult times.

In addition to being management's extended arm in the organization, the good middle manager should dare to step up as a true leader to the employees they are responsible for.

The prerequisite for this is that middle managers have absolute freedom to lead rather than having their hands and feet tied. Unfortunately, this freedom is far from universal, and the problem with this is that inadequate middle managers are one of the biggest reasons employees change jobs. At the same time, middle managers need more autonomy to maintain their ability to drive innovation and growth within their teams, which can be detrimental to the company's development.

Great freedom to lead

In Delegate, we have around 25 middle managers, each responsible for a team of typically 8-10 employees.

How do we best achieve our short- and long-term goals? Create the highest level of well-being and motivation? Should the team be strengthened with more employees?

With us, middle managers are very much in charge of how best to make their teams succeed. They also have a real influence on strategy, can hire and fire, and are responsible for their part of the business.

In practice, the middle manager is a kind of CEO for their particular unit, as if it were an independent company. Therefore, there is a big difference in how our teams are managed daily - of course, within our shared framework and values, and of course, with the ability to draw on, for example, our HR department.

I believe this freedom has been the foundation for our success in growing from 50 to 200 employees in just a few years without destroying the closeness that characterizes our culture. We measure the well-being of all employees every week, and both the relevant manager and the management team have access to follow-up.

"With us, middle managers are very much in charge of how best to make their teams succeed. They also have a real influence on strategy, can hire and fire, and are responsible for their part of the business."

Peter Østergaard
Co-CEO, Delegate

Great employees don't have to become leaders

Giving middle managers real responsibility is one thing. Choosing the right middle managers for the demanding task is another.

Not everyone has the skills or the genuine desire to move up the management ladder. Some choose that path - or are pulled up - because it's seen as a natural career progression and an appreciative pat on the back.

But there are many other ways to recognize and promote employees, including with money, titles, and responsibility, without necessarily having to take on staff or management responsibilities. This way, we can change the perception that the right career path is necessarily up the management ladder.

The skilled specialist, which in our case could be a software engineer, a functional consultant, or a project manager, may even lose their enthusiasm and passion if they suddenly find themselves with staff responsibilities. Not everyone has the skills to thrive in the minefield between management and employees.

The wrong people are often promoted to middle management because it's the easiest way to give formal recognition in the situation. This can quickly become a problem for the success and development of the company.

Therefore, more effort should be put into making the right people middle managers and giving them the necessary support and freedom actually to lead and create well-being and results.