The Anatomy of a Middle Manager

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The poster on his wall is tastefully sized but well placed, so as to immediately catch the  eye of whoever enters the office that houses it. Its visual appeal and syntactical clumsiness distract from the fact that it offers no substantive advice for actually achieving the success that it assures you is within reach. It’s hung next to a series of framed documents: a Bachelor’s degree, professional credentials, and a certificate awarded at the conclusion of a one-day workshop on time management. If you look closely, you will notice that these proudly displayed artifacts collectively comprise the series of acronyms found in their owner’s email signature, after his name and a couple of lines above the italicized quote imploring you to “seize the day”.

His job title, found somewhere in the middle of that signature, will contain a series of words you recognize, but their particular arrangement will hold little intuitive meaning to you. Words like ‘Manager’, ‘Director’ and ‘Supervisor’ are straightforward enough. Qualifiers like ‘Senior’, or ‘Associate’, or ‘Acting’ add a layer of ambiguity. After that, though, all bets are off. Expect some blend of vague adjectives (Corporate! Strategic! Operational!) and nouns that run the gamut from “I know what that is” to “pretty sure that’s not a thing” (Communications! Solutions! Efficiencies!). As you stare at it on the screen, page or business card, you’ll have a fleeting impression as to how he spends his day, but that will evaporate pretty quickly. You’ll be back to having about as much idea as to his function as you did before reading the label that affords him the nowhere-near-exclusive privilege of carrying a company credit card.

Some days he will pause for a moment of reflection (typically after another deadline successfully met) and, leaning back in his ergonomically immaculate office chair, smile fondly at memories from along his career path to date. His first day at the company: fresh out of school, wide-eyed and brimming with enthusiasm. His first meeting with the head of the division: suit-clad and heart racing, frantically drying his sweaty palms on his pants before introductory handshakes. Various promotions and milestones since. (Admittedly, in six years of owning it, he’s only twice used the telescope that he got for his 10-year anniversary with the firm.) After his most recent promotion, he’d taken his wife for the best steak dinner that money and a coupon he’d been saving for a while could buy; the evening concluded with one of their more passionate encounters that either could remember.

He’ll return his chair to upright position, smile having turned to something of a grin – almost chuckling to himself at his good fortune. But, of course, his lot in life is not a matter of fortune at all. Glancing at his leather-encased day planner, he will recall countless early evenings spent racing to finish a task (so as to make it home for the start of primetime sitcoms). Eyes scanning past his desktop daily-Dilbert calendar, he will swell with pride over his steadfast commitment to satisfying his superiors. All of this – the plant in the corner (watered twice a week by Larry from Corporate Facilities), the state-of-the-art phone (pin-drop audio fidelity), the LED monitor larger than most TVs of a generation ago – all of this is his… Well – not, like, in a literal ownership sense, but you get the idea: he has earned it all, through unfailing devotion to the company.

Standing up, he’ll gather his travel mug, company-branded fountain pen and the Outlook calendar he printed that morning (in case of spontaneous cell-phone combustion, he won’t miss a beat) and head for his next meeting. He allows a very average amount of time for ambulatory transit: he’s no athletic specimen, but not exactly a slouch either. In his prime, he had captained many an intramural squad and once finished among the top 10% of participants in a 5k charity run. These days, he’ll describe himself as a gym-goer when it comes up in conversation; that he hasn’t been in two months is secondary to the fact that he intends to go back any day now. The fit of his clothes varies slightly with the season: come on, the December smorgasbord of office potlucks would soften even the most chiseled of physiques. From time to time, he’ll read an article that inspires him to dabble in the fad diet of the day (chia seeds, anyone?), but apathy is a persistent thing so he’ll return to baseline by the time of next quarter’s earnings release.

All smiles as he enters the meeting room, his colleagues will take note of his good nature and firm handshake. His powder-blue cotton dress shirt, charcoal-&-navy paisley tie and conservatively cut trousers (no jacket, unless meeting with somebody 2+ levels above him) won’t land him on the cover of any fashion publication, but he’s among the more smartly dressed in the crowd. Admittedly, his sartorial achievement is hampered by the single pair of unremarkable black shoes that he pairs with every ensemble, but nobody pays attention to that, do they? The impression he makes will naturally have much more to do with his hearty laugh and consistent eye contact.

As the meeting is called to order after some good-natured banter about the weather, he will – unprompted – provide a status update on the action items that had been previously assigned to him. Then, depending on the composition of the group, he will either sit back and defer to those whose salaries are higher than his, or he will lean forward and assume his rightful position as the voice of authority. In either case, his demeanor is confident but not threatening; his voice assured but not abrasive. He lacks a little perspective on the context of his work relative to the broader organization, causing him to occasionally miss the mark when commenting on things falling outside of his direct purview, but only the especially trained ear will catch that. All in all, he is well respected; neither revered nor dismissed. If he were to ever pursue outside career opportunities (not likely), he would have no trouble finding colleagues to act as references for him. They’d be sad to see him go, but happy to support him in the pursuit of whatever is best for him. If phoned by a prospective employer, his references would invariably describe him as “a real team player”.

As the meeting ends and the clock strikes 4:30PM, he will wish everyone a wonderful evening, change into sneakers, don his backpack and head for the exit. (This month, in an effort to reduce his carbon footprint, he’s committed to making the 33-minute hike to and from the office.) If he’s checked every item off his to-do list for the day, he will practically float home, buoyed by a sense of accomplishment. If he’s fallen short, he will resolve to make up for it the next day.

He’ll even stay until 5PM, if necessary.

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