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The employment abyss: middle management

Individual contributors make good money without the management headache; senior executives make all the money. Middle management is the abyss in between, an employment no-man's land.

There's a great scene in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy saga; I think it was in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. The lead characters find themselves on a spaceship full of middle-managers from the planet Golgafrincham. (No, I don't know how to pronounce Golgafrincham.)

According to the hapless, half-witted middle-managers, their home planet was doomed and they'd been sent off on this spaceship to escape certain death. The plan was to rendezvous with two other ships - one of which contained the planet's leaders and scientists, and the other containing all its useful workers.

In fact, the planet wasn't doomed and the other two ships didn't exist. It was all a scheme to rid the planet of its useless populace. And the middle-managers were clueless.

Contrary to the book's satire, middle managers are useful, especially these days. There was a time - the 80s - when bloated companies had three or four more layers of management than they needed. That was ridiculous. The great management-layer purge of the 90s took care of that.

Still, there is a stigma attached to middle-management. But is it deserved? Let's see.

Limiting the discussion to white-collar professions, there's a broad range of individual contributors that do quite well for themselves without the headache of management responsibility: engineers, scientists, architects, doctors, lawyers, accountants, marketing and sales people, the list goes on and on.

At the other end of the employment spectrum are senior executives: general managers, vice presidents and C-level executives. These folks accept responsibility for product and corporate performance, and they're compensated accordingly.

In the middle are folks with management responsibility but without the hefty compensation and benefits of senior executives. In fact, the compensation gap between senior manager or director and vice president can be huge, especially when it comes to equity-based compensation.

Don't get me wrong. Middle management can certainly be a stepping stone. Product manager is one step from general manager or vice president of a business unit. Likewise, the next rung up from controller can be VP of finance or CFO.

The problem with middle management is getting stuck there. For those unfortunates, it can be a sort of purgatory, neither here nor there, the abyss between workers and leaders. The worst of both worlds. A no-man's land for employment.

But there's good news. Many people, me included, find executive management to be easier and less stressful than middle-management positions. It's perhaps counterintuitive, but executive management affords you greater control over your and your company's destiny, which suits many people fine.

That said, maybe some people are cut out for senior management and some aren't. I'm really not so sure. It probably has as much to do with drive, opportunity, and let's face it - luck - as capability or intelligence. Sure, leadership is important, but a reasonably strong, intelligent manager can be trained in leadership skills.

So, if you think you may have it in you, I say go for it. Cross the middle-management abyss. If nothing else, it's guaranteed to be an adventure. And trust me, succeed or fail, you'll feel better for trying. Hey, the whole universe, including the Golgafrinchamians, is already laughing at you; what have you got to lose?

If you think you have executive qualities, check out Ten qualities executives seek in up-and-comers here. If you'd like some strategies for climbing the corporate ladder, check out Jump-start your career in five hard lessons. And by all means, share your concerns, ideas, frustrations and experiences here.