The Good Fight: The Plight of Pharma's Middle Managers

Middle managers in pharma today have a tough, thankless job—but someone’s got to do it, and many do it well.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

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The Dilbert Principle, made famous by the long-running comic strip, holds that “leadership is nature's way of removing morons from the productive flow.” The Dilbert strips often feature uninspiring, less-than-competent professionals in positions of middle management, where they can “do the least harm.” TV’s The Office has hardly done anything to change this perception.

But recent research finds that the middle manager plays a critical—if not the most critical—role in ensuring organizational success. Ethan Mollick of the Wharton School of Management, for instance, maintains that middle managers have an impact “much larger than that of those individuals who are assigned innovative roles.” By “innovative” Mollick means top management, those who are expected to mold or reshape the organization.

In fact, Mollick says, good middle managers are especially critical in creative, innovative, and knowledge-intensive industries. And how better to describe pharma?

And yet, pharma’s middle managers are often viewed as Dilbertesque—inept, inexperienced, or even “frozen.” (See “Eluding the OpEx Black Hole,” Pharmaceutical Manufacturing, June 2009.)

That characterization is usually not quite apt, as our recent interviews with pharma middle managers suggest.
Nor is it fair, says Daniel Hoffman, president of PBRA Consultants. He believes that middle managers in pharma—from site directors to plant and lab managers to team leaders to Quality heads—are vastly underappreciated and ill-supported.

Lately. some of pharma's best middle managers have been put out to pasture. Fifty-something professionals with good skills and a broad knowledge base are looked at as expensive and expendable, he says—as a “people-as-interchangeable-parts” pervades the industry.

The Pfizer-Wyeth merger serves as a case in point—where a core group of experienced mid-level professionals was unceremoniously shown the door. During this era of mergers and acquisitions, restructurings, and wholesale layoffs, many companies are devolving into “warring camps,” Hoffman relates. This creates a situation where remaining middle managers must pick and choose their loyalties carefully.

In many cases, it’s a no-win situation. “Top management manages on the basis of quarterly earnings,” Hoffman adds. They’re focused on the short-term and, short of major scientific breakthroughs during their tenure, feel the need to restructure and let good people go. This won’t change any time soon, he says.

Precarious Position

Yet middle managers are the ones who are especially crucial during times of turmoil and change, says Bill Wilder, change management expert and director of the Life Cycle Institute. When you go through change, he says, “It's the individual that changes, not [just] the organization,” he says. “And the person that has the most influence on an individual’s desire and ability to change is their immediate manager, that middle manager.” (Here’s more of our talk with Wilder.)

Part of the problem is that good middle managers are those who make others look good. “My job is to obsolete myself,” says a Quality manager at a major biopharma facility, who asked that her name not be used. “If I go on vacation, everyone else should be able to support themselves.”

She understands the irony: “obsoleting” oneself gives off the impression that one is expendable. “But I’ve never believed in holding work to myself,” she says.

Middle managers, as their name suggests, are often caught between senior managers and subordinates. They must “manage up” and “manage down” though both of their constituencies may misinterpret their role and value.

“Middle managers' subordinates may assume that their managers know more than what is being communicated,” says Jane Chin, founder of the 9Pillars consultancy and author of “Practical Leadership for Biopharmaceutical Executives.” “This puts middle managers in a precarious position of balancing expectations” from all parties.

In addition, says Chin, pharma’s middle managers are asked to do the near-impossible—be creative and cautious at the same time. They hear, “Be careful! Don't get us in trouble!" while also, "Be creative! We're in the business of innovation!" It’s up to the middle manager, Chin says, to decipher what executives want and to “scale” these messages to their subordinates.


Unfortunately, Chin says, middle managers are often an afterthought in many pharma organizations. She calls them "managers-once-removed”—critical components to success but, because they reside in the “vast midsection” of the organization, they can become invisible and taken for granted.

And they’re often the first to go during layoffs, because they “don't appear to have tangible, objective metrics attached to their ‘cost’.” It’s not surprising, then, that the middle managers Chin has observed in the past few years tend to be in “perpetual reactive mode.” (Read our full interview with Chin here, including her advice on what managers must do to stay relevant.)

Middle managers are hamstrung, says Hoffman: “Pharma has defaulted a lot of its operations management to finance. Finance wants to reduce services and people to commodities.” This is especially true in manufacturing, where recent, highly-publicized recalls can be traced to preferred-vendor, lowest-price requirements established by Purchasing departments.

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