Wed. Sep 23rd, 2020

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Unlocking agility in middle management6 min read

Effective middle managers aren’t hired; they’re trained and developed. Our founders share tips and anecdotes on developing agility with middle management.

In Southeast Asia, startup founders face difficulties finding capable middle management, especially as they expand into new markets or lines of business. It’s a struggle that is part-and-parcel of a startup’s growing pains. Apart from competing with corporates, unicorns, and larger companies for talent and others starting their own companies, there’s the prevailing top-down management culture in the talent pool clashing with the need for managers capable of running an agile operation in the region.

Middle managers are not just there to fill in the leadership gaps of startup overcoming its growing pains. Cross-border operations and cross-cultural teams require leaders who can keep the organization agile and flexible. The ground rules vary for each market and industry and are all the more uncertain in this crisis.

The role can often turn into a “stuck between a rock and a hard place” situation. Middle managers need to make tough calls, and founders are hard-pressed to find the talent willing and capable. Even then, developing agile middle management is a necessity for any business to grow in the region.

Business expansion means that senior management will naturally tend to know less than people on the ground when it comes to specifics. Add a highly uncertain landscape into the mix, and top brass will need multiple perspectives to get a better sense of what needs to be done.

Effective middle managers can’t be hired, given the nature of their job as critical links in the organization. Middle managers are trained and molded into their roles, which are unique to the needs of the company. For fast-growing tech companies, there is not always enough time or resources to spend on training and development, which is why development also needs to come from the organization’s structure, processes, and culture itself. 

At the core of this approach is developing the ability of middle management to communicate their perspective from the ground. It’s a perspective built from acclimatization with the local or specific teams and expertise from their career. There are ways founders can develop their organization to unlock agility in middle management: 

(1) Developing effective middle managers begins with hiring the right culture-fit.

Middle managers develop into their roles, but it is crucial to have filters early-on when they first join the company that ensures they are comfortable with the culture of working at a startup. 

Finding this match is especially crucial for hiring industry veterans. Read more our advice on hiring seasoned veterans >>

Coming up with criteria for hiring can be difficult, but culture-fit should be at the foundation, and for fast-growing startups, that often involves finding talent with hunger. 

“We [at AwanTunai] don’t prioritize your technical skill above all else. We hire and promote based on how fast you grow and your leadership,” shares Windy Natriavi, COO and co-founder of AwanTunai, in an interview with her last year. “In reality, it’s hard…I want to find a good technical middle manager, but without the same hunger, they could jump around, so the investment and training you put into them [becomes] useless.”

(2) Overcommunication enables ownership.

Ownership begins with middle managers understanding the bigger picture, which means overcommunication from top leadership. This involves regular updates and calls. Counterintuitively, it is a healthy level of over-communication that puts middle managers in a better position to call the shots. 

For Windy, this is important to retaining talent. “How [you] retain [talent] is overcommunication…creating that environment in which they can perform. It doesn’t mean you always have to be at the forefront. Create an environment where they can call the shots so that they can understand the full context.”

(3) Integrating openness into SOPs overcomes cultural defaults. 

Traditional East Asian business cultures will encourage a default of staying quiet and not voicing out opinions to authority to avoid putting discussions in an awkward position. One way to circumvent this default is to force middle managers to speak up and bring their ideas to the table. Placing this as SOP ingrains it into the company’s operation, so the default becomes speaking up rather than staying quiet. 

This SOP is especially essential to maintain agility in a crisis as it allows top leadership to have optionality. Various perspectives can be noisy, but it is better than placing all bets in one basket that doesn’t have the full picture. 

For cross-border 4PL logistics platform Janio, these lines of communication are embedded through what they call “people managers.” 

As CEO and co-founder Junkai explained in a previous article, “When the country team reaches critical mass — for example recently in Indonesia we hit 20 people — we’ll get a people manager, someone who is very international but at the same time understands the locality they are assigned to.”

“Often, the local teams are not very vocal about problems with implementation. With strong interpersonal skills and local language ability, these people managers can extract the essence of the problems, and translate that to the HQ so we can target those issues.” 

Read more about how Janio manages cross-border teams >>

(4) Useful feedback loops begin with measuring the right things.  

It’s vital to keep middle managers in check, but doing that correctly means knowing what to look out for. 

In a crisis, these checks-and-balances are all the more critical. As co-founder and CEO of Carro Aaron Tan shared in our first webinar, conducting surveys with employees across the various countries they operate in is essential to get a sense of how each team is handling the crisis. Gaining this nuanced understanding is critical because the situation (and response) varies from country to country. 

“…we have done this survey and [are following] up. So we are implementing it across various countries, understanding what is happening, [asking questions like], “Do you have enough direction from the various CEOs?…Are you coping well?… Do you have good instructions from your bosses?” 

In getting a sense of the situation on the ground, it’s essential to know what metrics to check. “For me, it is about understanding which metrics are important. For instance, I’m watching my NPLs like a hawk nowadays. So it means like, even if it is 10 days late or one day late I need to know. So it’s very important to measure each of your countries accordingly, each of the business lines according to what matters and how it will matter,” Aaron adds. 

Read more about practical advice to survive in the COVID19 crisis from our first webinar >>

(5) Technology can reduce informational asymmetry.

Informational asymmetry can quickly happen in a company as a grows, and the more decentralized it becomes. It’s vital to have infrastructures for information to be easily presented and accessed. 

Technology automates information flows and makes communication more realtime. There are workplace collaboration platforms that companies can use, while others have the talent and resources to build their infrastructure better suited to their needs. 

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