CEX Survey: What Chief Executives Make of their Middle Managers


01 Aug 2019

CEX Survey: What Chief Executives Make of their Middle Managers

Our yearly survey of Chief Executives in local government provides a look at the ever-shifting landscape of public service.

In this first piece, our consultants in Sourcing – Gemma Matin and Jon Dilling – take a closer look at Chief Executive’s point of view on middle managers – a key stakeholder group for leaders.

Come back weekly to read our series, and download our full MJ Chief Executive survey white paper below for our full insights on middle managers and other leadership agendas below.  

Looking at a typical Council’s structure chart, a Chief Executive and their middle managers might feel quite removed. After all there’s Directors, AD’s and Head of roles between them.

 Yet Penna’s annual survey of Chief Executives demonstrates the power of the manager in the eyes of Council leadership. These individuals cover those employees sitting beneath the c-suite and above their own specialised teams, form one of the most important communicative cohorts in any Council.

With this in mind, we asked Chief Executives across the UK what this group do well, and what they would like to see them doing more of. Advice included a greater emphasis on communication, the politics of Council life and embracing innovative thinking.

A positive impact

Over 75% of the Chief Executives who responded to our survey said something positive about their middle managers. The dedication of public sector staff to their work was a theme; ‘glue, doing very difficult jobs’ was how one CEO described their middle managers. It was heartening, then, to read the recommendation that this middle layer of local government should ‘have the confidence to match their own abilities’.

Cascading strategic direction down an organisation is reliant on middle managers instructing their teams on decisions made by the executive group. In the local government context, one CEO recognised their middle managers as ‘the critical layer in communication up and down the organisation’.

Chief Executives are keen for future-thinking and innovation to happen at manager level. One described this section of their workforce as ‘cautious yet curious; in need of opportunities to experiment’.

The strains suppressing strategy

Yet difficult times do not make innovation or strategic thinking easy. A recent HBR study said an over-zealous ‘efficiency focus eliminates free time for fresh thinking’ . This may put the unadventurous appraisal of local government middle management into perspective. Gemma Matin, Sourcing Lead at Penna, has observed changes in the local government arena impacting the middle layer of organisations;

“Because of top level restructures and redundancies organisation-wide, third tier management have been given more strategic responsibility, whilst oftenretaining delivery remits and managing specialist teams. The combination of a technical and strategic skillset is something that is increasingly sought after for roles we deliver within our Sourcing team; which are specifically hard to fill roles at third tier and below.

In light of the prevalent restructuressenior leadership positions are often changed by either combining roles, making redundancies or individuals moving on elsewhere. Consequently, managers are often taking on broader remits and further niche skillsets are often required not only from heads of service but from managers, team leaders and officers. 

As such diverse, niche and hard to find skillsets are becoming increasingly needed in local government at this level, it’s important to take a proactive approach to the candidate market and target those who may not be actively looking for a position. We work with our clients to create an attractive proposition with a clear, concise and distinct message about the organisation we’re representing – which will entice credible candidates to apply.

There is an onus on the hiring organisation to be open minded when there is a need for technical, managerial and or strategic experience. For instance, we’re increasingly seeing finance/accountant roles that encompass both pensions and treasury experience, whereas five years ago these likely would have been two separate roles and therefore candidates are less common to have both of these skillsets. Council’s need to be more flexible regarding technical capability and be able to build this internally in order to attract the right person to the role, especially where softer skills and organisational fit come into play.” 

Where third-tier management were described as ‘a bit head-down at times’ by one respondent, another described them as ‘hard working [but] bending under the weight of austerity and demand’. Given the ever-increasing demand for Council services and that funding for local government is ‘dwindling to nothing’, this lack of innovation in stretched organisations is not particularly surprising.

Skills to develop

Arguably, it’s at the middle manager level that political exposure begins to become a greater part of day-to-day activity. Survey respondents want their managers to ‘better read the politics’ and ‘recognise the need to develop political nous’.

There was an overarching theme that all employees should embrace a ‘collective corporate attitude’ and become bigger organisational thinkers. One Chief Executive commented that middle managers should;

'Think about how they contribute to the management of the organisation as a whole, rather than just running their own function.’

Encouraging such attitudes is important to develop bigger-picture thinking, something required as middle managers move up the talent pipeline in a Council to further leadership responsibilities. Jon Dilling, Sourcing Lead at Penna, has these observations on the new and improved public service middle manager  

“We’ve observed some real shifts in the market place recently. Our clients are now recruiting a different type of middle manager than they were 5 years ago – more generalist and agile in skillset and with the ability to work across a number of different portfolios rather than specializing in a service niche. They’re also looking for more strategic mindsets, but the emphasis on delivery and operational skills has not lessened either. Given the budgetary strain facing all public sector organisations, an emphasis on commerciality, as well and innovation, is also a common client request.   

We keep talking about the ‘war for talent’, and these increased demands are fueling it – our Penna Sourcing service specializes in finding hard-to-reach and in-demand candidates for hard-to-fill roles and arguably the posts that deliver a council’s strategic vision. 

If you look at the landscape of local government, the shift in middle manager requirements is explained. The sector has transformed and evolved, becoming leaner in the face of budget cuts and service-user demand. It’s natural then that the role of a local government middle manager has changed.

Middle managers have become even more important , and the impact of their work and the extent of their reach extended. So, it’s no surprise that these people are interacting with the politics more and more. The middle managers that we recruit are absolutely going to be the Directors of tomorrow, given their increased exposure to the strategic and political elements.”

Our Sourcing service at Penna finds the talent to recruit hard-to-place public sector middle manager roles, typically in the £45,000 - £75,000 bracket.

If you would like to find out more about our offer, please get in touch with Gemma Matin (gemma.matin@penna.com) or Jon Dilling (jon.dilling@penna.com).


Read the second article in our Chief Executive series, what CEXs want from their HR and OD professionals

To download our full MJ Chief Executive Survey, click here.