Proxy Management

A Proxy Manager is a person promoted to a middle management position on the basis of their longevity within an organization or their loyalty to and agreement with the vision and management style of their immediate superior.

The term "Proxy Manager" stems from the fact that these people don't necessarily act as a leader themselves but rather serve as the extension of the management style and practice of the more senior manager above them.

Proxy Managers are becoming increasingly common in today's business, public sector, and political establishments. Within the British parliamentary systems, Prime Minister's Offices are increasingly controlling the entire agenda and communication cycles of their entire cabinet; this even though these cabinet ministers are also elected by their own constituents and thus arguably have an independent mandate to govern. Business scandals such as Enron, Worldcom, Nortel, and the banking industry meltdown all point to proxy managers who simply did as they were told by their managers without exercising any independent thought, reflection, or attempt to challenge the governing practices of their employers.

What are the characteristics of proxy managers? They can be recognized because they never (or very seldom) adopt an independent or critical position toward any corporate practice or policy, even if they could challenge such a practice in a polite, diplomatic, or constructive way. They seldom advocate or support the needs or concerns of their subordinates to more senior levels within the organization but instead instruct subordinates to follow directions from senior management without question. They can clearly communicate the direction or vision of senior management downward through the organization but seldom provide reverse feedback which could further refine that  vision. They seldom take initiative in sponsoring new ideas (unless assigned to do so) and appear cautious, almost fearful for their jobs.

So why are Proxy Managers become the norm? I can think of a number of reasons:

  1. We all like to be with people who agree with us, who complement us for our skills and decisions, and who make us feel good; senior managers are no different and choose subordinates who make them feel this way.
  2. It is easier to reach an agreement when everyone around the management, board or cabinet table agree with the person making the ultimate decision. Group think is rare enough and the consequences of "group think" scenarios are far enough down the road into the future that there is very little immediate feedback to discourage "group think" and a strong likelihood that the costs will confront the next administration rather than the present one.
  3. Proxy managers are an extension of the management power and persona of the more senior leader. As such, they extend the empire, power, and influence of the senior manager. This extension of power and ego can be attractive and addictive.

In spite of all these reasons supporting the use of Proxy Managers, they really are harmful to any organization. While the detriment of these managers might not be immediately evident, they serve to rot the ability of the organization to respond to changing business needs in a number of ways.

In any organization, the people working on the front-lines, near the bottom of the organization chart are the true canaries in the coal mine. They are the first people to hear of customer complaints; witness the emergence of new competitive challenges; and understand the changing needs of the customer base along with the potential to create new products and services to meet these needs. If these people have a strong and trusting relationship with their manager, they are more likely to share these perspectives with their manager with the hope that their feedback will be fed into the corporation's entire business development cycle. Sadly, proxy managers are reluctant to share these messages with their management and the result is usually an unexpected declining earnings per share and shareholder value.

Proxy managers recruit works who think like themselves. This means that such organizations can only attract and retain people who will "tow the party line" or who value safety and job security over innovation, growth and skill development. The consequence is that people with a more entrepreneurial, innovative, or creative bent will often leave to work at other organizations which do challenge them professionally.

Being a proxy manager can be an easy job--apart from managing the risk of misinterpreting their role within the organization--decision making is deferred to higher levels within the organization and the manager only has to communicate and enforce these decisions within his or her business unit. However working for a proxy manager is not as easy: decisions often appear arbitrary and unrelated to the immediate context of the situation. Because the manager's loyalty is to his or her own manager and not to his or her employees, there is little support or direction to help the business unit respond to challenges and problems as they emerge.