View from the middle

What's on the mind of Britain's mid-ranking executives? What motivates and frustrates them? To find out, we polled them.

by Miranda Kennett and Emma de Vita
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What do Britain's middle managers really think about their lot? Are they happy? What do they make of their bosses and the companies they work for? Back in June, MT asked Britain's business leaders for their views from the top, but those further down the organisation rarely have a voice. So, we thought we'd ask MT readers for their opinions on all matters managerial.

More than 1,000 junior, middle and senior managers replied to our online survey. They came from a mix of private and public-sector organisations, including BP, the NHS, BT, Barclays, Hewlett Packard and Lloyds TSB. More than 40% of respondents were women. The initial intriguing findings led to follow-up interviews that illuminated some of the more surprising results.

The astonishing discovery, for example, that nearly 70% of managers did not want their boss's job - despite the fact that three-quarters of managers described themselves as 'very' or 'moderately' ambitious. Or the fact that 43% of respondents felt that Britain's managers were not valued.

First, though, the good news. Among the welter of facts and figures the survey produced, what stands out a mile is that the vast majority of respondents appear to be very happy in their roles. They may have gripes about the pressure they are under and the inroads that work makes into their private lives; they may criticise their bosses for being entrenched in their views, but life as a manager isn't at all bad.

In fact, 92% of respondents said they would choose to be a manager if they had their time again. 'Even though it is very hard work, it is also very satisfying' was a typical response. They also feel that their appointment is a mark of recognition. As one male manager put it: 'It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, and I feel I have achieved something in my life that I can feel proud of.'

For another, the rationale for being a manager was 'having the ability to make a positive difference to colleagues, the company's performance and to have a good influence on the industry'. Having a degree of influence was a strong motivator for many. Said one manager: 'I enjoy the power, the decision-making, and having the influence - and the challenges.' Said another: 'It gives me the power to change things. I spent years moaning about managers. Now I realise how important good management is to the success of any service.'

For many, satisfaction is closely tied to their role in developing people.

Turning round an underperforming member of staff or encouraging someone younger to be more confident was a genuine source of pleasure to many interviewed by MT. But some resented any distraction from their own progress: 'It curtails my personal development,' admitted one.

Another source of job satisfaction for a manager was having autonomy - nearly 80% cited this as their most important criterion. Like the CEOs and chairmen above them, managers like to be given responsibility, to be left to do things as they think best. It was clear from our survey that the bosses who give their managers a free hand are the ones who are most respected - micromanagement is seen as a cardinal sin.

Of course, it was never going to be all roses. Our survey respondents were critical of all the things that curb their ability to determine their own path: bureaucracy, unnecessary layers of hierarchy, and initiatives imposed from above with little understanding of the repercussions further down the organisation.

A good half of managers said their biggest challenge was working with too few resources - a particular problem in project-based businesses, where competition for budget can lead to under-pricing, thereby overloading those responsible for delivery. 'There's a tendency for partners to sell a project and let someone else have the headache of delivering it,' said a young female executive from a big management consultancy. 'As a result, many projects are under-budgeted and cannot be completed in the time with the allocated resources.' In her latest project she worked until 3am for days on end. It led her to a nervous collapse last year.

Stephanie Brown, a manager at WPP-owned design company Landor, also feels the pressure to do more with less. 'In a service company, you tend to be slaves to your clients,' she explains. A hectic pace is accepted as part of life in the marketing communications industry. Brown was recently offered a similar role in the New York office but turned it down. 'People complain about the long working hours here, but it's even worse in the US,' she says.

All the CEOs and chairmen that MT spoke to for 'View from the Top' admitted that their jobs had a big impact on their personal lives, but felt that the trade-off was well worth making. As Martin Sorrell, group CEO of WPP - and Brown's ultimate boss - said: 'Ultimately, we are all adults. If you think the price is too high, you can stop doing what you're doing. We are all free to do what we want.' Britain's middle managers seem to agree. The prospect of ever-greater pressure does not seem to be putting them off their desire for promotion.

Sally Frost, head of the communications team for Hewlett Packard's Enterprise division, describes herself as very ambitious. 'When I first became a manager, I tried to do everything myself, my old job plus my new responsibilities, but I soon realised this was a mistake.' Although she enjoys managing and feels she is there to nurture the team, she finds it harder to identify her individual achievement and to see where exactly she is adding value.

To be judged on the success of your team when you are keen to make your own mark as an individual can be a difficult adjustment to make.

Nigel Warway had his own small business for six years before becoming a senior marketing manager at Lego. 'I'm incredibly ambiti- ous. In time, I'd like my boss's job and eventually my own business, but I'm very happy with Lego now.'

Management consultancies applaud this kind of ambition. Says an employee at one: 'Your ranking depends on you exhibiting ambition. The more bolshy you are, the faster you move.'

Surprisingly, with all this ambition, nearly 70% of respondents said they wouldn't want their boss's job. On closer questioning, the reason they gave was that the next job up was structured more conventionally or was very administration-based and would take them away from what they most enjoyed doing.

For Cathy Ellingford, a senior NHS manager in children's healthcare, the next step up would be to become CEO, but she fears the role would water down the things that give her real satisfaction. 'There's nothing like working on a ward to keep you up to speed with what's going on,' she says. Like many of our respondents, Ellingford relished the hands-on aspect to her role.

But not everyone felt quite so motivated. In fact, 43% thought Britain's managers are not given due respect. 'I don't think that generally managers are valued and that's quite sad,' says Jonathan Milburn, who runs the contact centre for the London Borough of Newham. He is critical of the way that people are promoted to management roles on the basis of their operational skills or length of tenure, rather than because they have management experience and aptitude. 'If I were to rank all the managers that I've had, David Brent would come about halfway up the scale,' he says ruefully.

MT asked managers what they would change if they were the CEO, and 742 gave us their views. The two themes that came out most strongly were changes in structure and in culture. They would cut out dead wood at the top and create flatter, leaner structures. Change would be created by empowering managers - in their view, the people who do the real work.

According to a senior project manager at one of the big five banks, the larger the organisation, the more likelihood of silos and business units protecting their own interests and competing with each other to the organisation's detriment. Changing this 'macho' and 'can't do' culture would be his priority.

'Senior executives either know too much about how things used to be and micromanage, stifling innovation, or they have little knowledge and make decisions that actually contravene FSA regulations. They gain a reputation for action but leave a trail of devastation in their wake.'

At HP, Frost is much more aware of politics now that she's a manager.

She also consciously makes efforts to keep information channels open between departments, to 'de-siloise' the business, as she puts it. If they were made CEO, our respondents would also improve internal communication, and try to grow a more energetic, customer-focused and flexible culture.

Not everyone who responded had their eye on the board. The 8% of respondents who, given their time again, would avoid becoming a manager wanted to do something more creative and less office-bound. 'I would choose to be a musician, actress or dancer, because I find these totally fulfilling and expressive,' said one. Also mooted were canoe-guide, pilot, inventor, archaeologist, scientist and academic.

Others, several of them with a specialist background, disliked a general management role because it didn't allow them to use their expertise. 'In this company, the only way to get promoted is to become a manager,' said one. 'There is no specialist career path here.'

Some simply felt that the higher pay was not commensurate with the additional pressures. As one respondent put it: 'There's only £2k difference in a managerial role pay and an analyst below, but the workload increases by 45%.'

However, most of our sample both respect their managers and believe them to be good leaders. Having a good relationship with your boss can be the deciding factor in whether to stay in your job or move on. Perhaps that's why, in these days of the highly mobile workforce and the much-quoted 'war for talent', our sample have on average worked for the same organisation for more than eight years.

The managers MT spoke to were quick to point out that major organisational changes and frequent promotion had brought them stimulation and reward.

Says Clive Head, at BP for seven years: 'I didn't expect to stay here so long, but major restructuring every two to three years has kept me interested.' He feels valued at work and loyal to BP, but recognises that a big company is a cocoon. 'I've got a grounded knowledge of my ability now. I could always get another job.'

Overall, what impressed MT about Britain's managers is how seriously they take their role, and how committed they are to doing a good job. Some even feel born to manage. As one put it: 'It's an itch I've got to scratch.'

 

CLIVE HEAD, LOYALTY AND ALLIANCES MANAGER, BP

'Change has become a way of life here. I love it,' says Head, who three years ago lived through a radical restructuring at BP UK as it morphed from petrol seller to convenience retailer. Unlike some of our survey respondents, he enjoys a large degree of autonomy within this ever-changing context. 'I have a complex role and I enjoy very wide boundaries.'

Head was one of the people recognised as having the commitment and aptitude to succeed in the new set-up. 'Unusually, everyone was offered voluntary redundancy. A step change was needed and there was no room for "prisoners" on board, people who didn't really believe in the new direction. There was a 40% reduction in headcount.'

The re-orientation is regarded as a major success, with BP snapping at the heels of Tesco and Marks & Spencer in the convenience sector. 'Nowadays, we make more money on selling a cup of coffee than on a full tank of petrol. The focus on convenience retailing has made people come to the forefront.'

The UK was selected as a test market. 'We met all the model stage gates, and our approach is being rolled out across the group. The way we ran our selection processes is being adopted as a blueprint for the group.'

Head is chairman of the BP Employers' Forum, and he's clear that culture is crucial in re-orientation. 'It is important that the leaders walk the talk, but it also has to be translated downstream,' he stresses. 'It's easy for there to be silos with different cultures.'

To counteract this, all senior mangers spend four days a year working in-store, and four hours a quarter in call centres. Further reorganisation is on the way. 'Change has become a way of life. It never stops - we have to continually reinvent ourselves. Just like Tesco. Or Madonna.'

ANN HOOD, HEAD OF INTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS, SCOTTISH & NEWCASTLE

After seven years as head of corporate PR and latterly responsible for internal communication at the Scottish Power Group, Ann Hood has just moved to Scottish & Newcastle.

She joined Scottish Power three years after it was privatised, just when greater deregulation meant that, for the first time, energy companies were competing for customers.

Hood was able to draw on her broader business experience for that new role. 'I'd been in consultancy, so I was bringing in the skills of being able to get on with a wide range of people.'

Managing a small team, Hood found the most challenging people to manage are those it's difficult to like. 'Try as you can to find something likeable, they're still despicable.' And she can't bear people who spend time spreading malicious gossip. 'They should have left that behind in the school playground.'

In a fast-growing firm, Hood had the opportunity to move around, 'so it never felt like the same job'. She feels fortunate in not having been over-managed. 'I get on and do my job, and if it goes wrong I take the blame. Micromanaging is stupid. You are destroying the creativity and initiative in your own team.' A young female boss provided her with a positive role model. 'She had a very clear, focused mind. She gave encouragement and took for granted I could do the job and wanted me to feel empowered to do it.'

But she also learned how not to manage, in that her boss, who came from a male-dominated engineering background, could be aggressive to others.

Not surprisingly, this was counterproductive to getting things done. Says Hood: 'Having been a workaholic, she became a mum, which really changed the balance of her life positively.'

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS HOW AMBITIOUS ARE YOU? Very: 47.5% Moderately: 26.0% Fairly: 20.7% Not very: 5.8% ARE YOU ACTIVELY SEEKING PROMOTION? No: 54.4% Yes: 45.6% DO YOU WANT YOUR BOSS'S JOB? No: 68.8% Yes: 31.2% IN FIVE YEARS' TIME, WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU WILL BE? In the same organisation in a more senior role: 27.1% Running your own business: 19.1% In a bigger organisation: 11.3% In another similar-sized organisation in a similar role: 9.8% Retired: 7.7% In the same job: 7.6% In a smaller organisation: 4.4%

CHRIS ELUWA, DEPLOYMENT MANAGER, PEROT SYSTEMS

In our survey, 45% agreed that office politics was damaging their organisation. But, says Chris Eluwa, a senior manager in the healthcare division of Perot Systems, 'there's an impression out there that all office politics are bad. I disagree. You can't avoid it, it exists in every facet of life.

You ignore it to your detriment. You can play the game without selling your soul.' In his view, to grow up as a manager you need to understand office culture and how it operates - and that's essentially politics.

His job involves project management of the roll-out of a major IT system to National Health Trusts. He particularly enjoys the challenge of managing a large team. 'You need to keep your eye on the ball, see the big picture but don't lose sight of the nitty-gritty. You need to feed down strategic goals so everyone understands them, or you'll have a big problem managing the team.'

He prefers to give his direct reports the space to take responsibility, but likes to check they know what has to be done. Sometimes there's a problem with people who want to do their own thing but don't have the capability. 'They don't want to be micromanaged, but they don't have the bandwidth to deliver what's needed. I work with them to create a development plan so they can move towards independence. I try to help them open up to direction and guidance.'

Eluwa feels that the higher you go in a management structure, the greater the likelihood that you will sacrifice your personal life. 'In project management there will always be high peaks in terms of deliverables, when 24 hours are not enough. You want people to be stimulated and to enjoy the work they're doing. Visibility of the leader is key. You just have to be there.'

JOB SATISFACTION 88% said one of their most motivating factors was 'a sense of achievement' 79% said the biggest contribution to their job satisfaction was 'having relative autonomy' 48% said bureaucracy was the most disliked aspect of being a manager 46% said that they were happy with their work/life balance RATING THE BOSS 66% rated their manager a good leader 32% said their manager doesn't give them the support they need to do their job well 56% agreed that 'senior management is very effective' 47% said that senior management had 'entrenched views and needs to change'

CATHY ELLINGFORD, CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE'S LEAD, TEIGNBRIDGE, SOUTH HAMS AND WEST DEVON PRIMARY CARE TRUST

Cathy Ellingford has worked in the NHS for 20 years, and loves it. 'I feel appreciated and challenged,' she says. She was recently headhunted to be children's lead for two primary care trusts in the West Country.

'Things like the Lamming report and the Bristol enquiry raised the profile of children's issues, without necessarily giving the knowledge of what should be done. I've been recruited as a change agent, given a blank canvas.'

Within a few months she has challenged a number of practices and protocols that didn't make sense.

'You have to unpick things, to ask questions, to get to the bottom of why things are done a certain way. It may mean going to the Department of Health to ask. Sometimes, there's a justification, which I can pass on down the line. At others, it turns out to be just a bit of old history - no-one remembers why it's done that way and so it could be changed.'

Managing a patch that stretches from Plymouth to Somerset, it worries her that IT is so under-used in hospitals. 'On the wards, most nurses - especially the older ones - don't know how to save a document or send a group e-mail. It takes them ages to do something simple, which keeps them away from patients' bedsides.'

Ellingford has introduced secretarial resource for ward managers so that they have standard letters and Excel spreadsheets for fundraising.

She believes that having quantifiable targets is important for improving standards, so she pulled together the goals of the various children's agencies to create a single action plan. 'Knowing good work is going on in one place encourages everyone else. I'm a bit of a target bunny, and I avoid getting overloaded. It's taken me years to understand that some due dates are moveable targets. I know that I'm a bad role model for work/life balance. I tend to stay and do the job until it's done.'

Would she want her boss's job?

'No, that's the CEO role. There's so much to do I think it would water down my job satisfaction, take me away from the things I love. Maybe in a few years' time.'

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