Confessions of a Recovered Middle Manager

MEM Program Director Mark Werwath looks back on his professional journey in order to offer advice to current and future students.

By Mark Werwath, MEM program director

The start of the calendar year is always a time for reflection, and this year I've been doing a lot of thinking about my early career in industry and my evolution from engineer to manager to leader.

After I graduated from Northwestern's Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program in 1987, I began my work as a program manager at Northrop Grumman. As I think about my journey from then to now, which included various management and senior leadership roles at Motorola and WMS Gaming, I can see three distinct phases where my productivity ranged from high velocity to near stagnation. Upon reflection, I've identified the factors that led to each phase. 

In the early days of being a leader — a manager, if you will — of younger engineers and eventually of programs that were worth tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, I was aggressive. I took a no-holds-barred approach, and yes, one might even say there was a bit of arrogance and impulsivity. I always tried to listen to folks in the organization and take feedback whenever I could, but my decision making and my style was very fast moving. It led to quick decisions based on limited data. While I'm proud I made good decisions most of the time, they were made quickly without much thought of the ramifications or implications on a broader scale. There also were still mistakes that would have benefitted from more data, more analysis and more thought.

Once I got to the middle of my career — perhaps after my first 10 years as a manager — I found myself overseeing multiple programs and started to become focused on processes. I was focused on driving variation out of the process and improving consistency, capacity, and efficiency. While these were noble goals, I found myself opposing much of the organization who resisted changes to processes and were more fond of improvising and innovating processes, decisions, and even the product itself on a mostly unilateral basis.  

In the early days of my process focused approach, I became blind to the needs of others and the speed that an organization can move and adapt to a new paradigm. I also failed to realize that innovation and creativity are just as important in many organizations as the need for consistency and efficiency. Coming from a factory operations mindset, I didn’t see the needs of other parts of the organization to incorporate true innovation into the culture. Too much focus on process could have a cultural impact on an organization that was known for its innovation, possibly stymying the creative juices that brought success in the past. 

Finally, in the latter half of my corporate career, I started to appreciate the need for balance and the need to apply process improvement techniques in a lighter handed fashion. I finally understood the need to balance the push from the top with the pull from the bottom and the importance of balancing innovation and creativity with consistency and efficiency.

I also started to realize that in large organizations, the middle managers often become the biggest obstacles to change. The folks at the top want to make change and the folks on the bottom desire change, but those in the middle often feel torn. These middle managers know what works and they believe in the approaches that got them promoted, so often they are the least receptive to making process or cultural change. 

So if middle managers are the ones who often hold up an organization's growth, how do they themselves grow and transition into senior leadership?

To me, the answer lies in them being able to overcome the instinct to become paralyzed by decisions. What senior leaders understand better than most is that a failure to decide is itself a decision. It is a decision to delay. It is a decision to let time work to your advantage or disadvantage. It is a decision to let nature take its course.

A delayed decision is still a decision.   

Middle managers who find a way to make things happen are usually the ones who transition to senior leadership positions. Those who make it to the top usually have one thing in common: a bias toward action.

Engineers often desire more data and proof before committing to a course of action. While this is often a good thing, it must be weighed against the alternative of waiting and the value of added time in the equation. Will more time buy you more insight or simply eliminate options? Will more time give you an advantage or will it be an advantage to others? As we age, we have a different perception of time and we can see the longer term a bit easier. Is there an advantage to a less than perfect decision that is made quickly and decisively?

As a program manager, my team and I were often criticized for our late deliveries to an anxious market. The tail end of the process often got criticized, but the front end of the process rarely got the attention for a late start. What I've realized over the years is that it all comes down to balance. Starting a project earlier will likely help ensure an earlier delivery. Putting an emphasis on process while still allowing for creativity is what tends to produce an effective and enjoyable work culture.

As we look ahead to 2021, think about your own work and your own life, and ask yourself this question: How can I bring about more balance?

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