The Age of Individual Contribution and the Decline of Middle Management

Career paths most commonly project upward. Most who have been in the workforce for a few years have been taught to think about climbing ladders and to join companies that have upward mobility. If the rungs are climbed fast enough, a career is successful; if too slow, it is stagnant. If the next rung is not apparent, then the job is a dead end.

The definition of a successful career path is changing, though.

Great companies are becoming much flatter, and this trend will accelerate over the next 20 years. Promotion through the ranks won’t involve managing an ever greater number of people; instead it will mean an ever greater amount of accountability for an organization’s success.

The implication of flatter organizations for middle management work life is clear: more hands-on production of deliverables, less workforce to manage. This reality is difficult to accept for most and many have not even acknowledged it yet. It feels like a big negative to just about everyone. Those not yet in management feel like there is less opportunity for them to advance, while those already in management are being asked to contribute more individual deliverables and are failing when they don’t comply. Everyone feels like they are being demoted or deprived. 

Regardless of how negative this paradigm shift may feel, it is a tremendous evolution in the way we work. Organizations are getting flatter to better serve their customers. Empowered, dynamic people at the interface point with the customer is the desire; bureaucratic hierarchies comprised of managers on top of managers are on the chopping block.

Great companies will have highly skilled and well compensated people at the frontlines serving as individual contributors. These are the same types of people with similar competencies that would formerly have been managers, directors and vice presidents. Those who accept it the earliest will advance the quickest. In stark contrast, resistance will likely mean no work at all, with a hard fought path back into the game.

From a career perspective, success in flatter organizations is about changing your mindset. It’s not climbing a people ladder, it’s climbing an accountability ladder. Here is how to change your mindset to maximize your career path and recognize your true value to the organization:

  • Your value is not measured by the number of people you manage or how many levels up you are from the bottom. It is measured by the amount of a specific value chain you are accountable for.
  • As you advance in your career, you won’t be managing an ever greater number of direct and indirect reports. Instead, you will have an ever greater amount of ownership over an integrated network of suppliers, internal business partners and technology platforms to drive an outcome.
  • You’ll still get to manage teams of people as you advance, they will just be smaller in size. Every position will have increasing criticality to your organization’s success and you will still be personally responsible for deliverables.

Enter your email address at the top right of the page to have all megadisrupter articles delivered to your inbox!