According to census data, retirement rates will increase significantly as the US workforce ages over the next 10 years, resulting in a vacuum within today’s middle management. While managers have been the source of much analysis, the majority of research and writing – whether popular or scholarly – centers either on the C-suite and senior executives or on first-time managers. Compared to the volumes that have been written about those who rank above and below them, our understanding of middle managers is limited.
Importance of Middle Management
While middle managers may not set their firm’s vision, they are responsible for delivering organizational results and supporting senior management’s strategic initiatives by managing people, budgets, and operational processes. As organizations become leaner and flatter in structure, mid-level managers typically have fewer direct reports and must rely on strong influencing skills and the ability to navigate networks of resources to get results.
Mid-level managers are also the driving force behind the execution of organizational priorities and ongoing organizational restructuring. However, the dissolution of the career ladder as well as persistent job insecurity have eroded mid-level managers’ sense of loyalty. Middle managers also face unique challenges and responsibilities, such as navigating strategic goals that seem to contradict one another (e.g., “cut overhead costs” and “reduce turnover of high performers”).
As Harvard Business School aptly points out, a paradox has therefore arisen where the importance of middle managers is growing, but their skills are not standing up to their requirements, and their sense of career security is decreasing. If we expect our organizations to compete, much less thrive, in the future, they need to figure out how to effectively devote resources to their middle layer.
The Value of Investing in Your Mid-Level Managers
We’ve established that mid-level managers are critically important to your organization’s success. The role they play in increasingly flat organizations should justify investments in their development.
However, there is additional value in investing in them: investing in middle managers provides increases in the bottom line according to Bersin by Deloitte. Organizations that focus on developing their middle managers in the areas of communications, managing change, and coaching can expect improved engagement, retention and teamwork in their organization. As Michele Golden, VP of HR at Turner Broadcasting System observes, “Middle managers play a critical role in our organization, so it is important that we position them for success. People leave managers, not companies. And if they’re not leaving, then they’re not as engaged or productive.”
Companies Excelling in This Area
Despite all this, little developmental attention has been devoted to middle managers until recently. According to Accenture, 25% of U.S. companies have either reduced investment in their leadership development programs or never had one to start with.
The good news is that 39% of organizations have recognized the invaluable contributions of their middle layer as well as the risk associated with an ill-prepared pool of middle managers. As a result, they are increasing their investment in these programs.
Successful leadership development requires the blending of experiential on-the-job learning, coaching, and feedback with formal training. The best programs are keeping the learning as close as possible to a manager’s day-to-day work. Two organizations doing this are:
The Office of Human Capital Management (OHCM) at NASA established NASA’s 16-month Leadership Development program to provide guidance for an agency-wide group of individuals who have exhibited the potential to assume greater leadership responsibilities in formal or project management roles. The program provides an opportunity for middle managers to gain exposure, expand their perspectives, and learn skills in areas identified as critical for growth and leadership in the agency.
Established in 2010, TBS’s Management Essentials integrates webinars, classroom training, e-learning, and on-the-job experience. Rather than covering a concrete period of time, it spans the lifecycle of an employee, from hiring, performance management, company policies and procedures, delegation, and time management, to transitioning from an individual subject matter contributor to a people manager, to team development and resolving interpersonal conflict. The program also provides opportunities for middle managers to connect with their peers. All new managers must complete the program and the company is working to adapt it for veteran managers.
What if your company doesn’t have formal development program?
While some companies have acknowledged the importance of investing in middle management, a SHRM survey of 600 U.S. employees revealed that middle managers were less satisfied with professional development programs provided by their employers than executives. And this refers to employees at a company that has any development program in place, as most organizations do not.
Thus, mid-level leaders are taking matters into their own hands and embracing their own development. For those of you seeking to do the same, we recommend the following steps:
- Seek out a coach
The most successful senior leaders are leveraging coaches – why shouldn’t middle managers follow suit? Coaches can help you identify and develop skills gaps, develop establish career priorities, and help you perform better among other benefits.
- Become a mentor
On the surface, this might seem counter-intuitive: why would you help someone else grow when that’s your own objective? First, when you are focused on mentoring someone else, you won’t be as pre-occupied on your own problems. On top of that, as Steve Farber points out in his latest book – Greater than Yourself – “truly great leaders in life become so because they cause others to be greater than themselves.” Therefore, the more you can channel these traits of the mentoring, purposeful leader, the more likely you are to be successful.
- Take inventory of your values and behaviors
Effective leadership requires self-awareness. Take advantage of 360-degree assessments to discover your talents and blind spots. If these aren’t available, you can broaden awareness by listing your values and evaluating your past behaviors against them. Do the decisions you make or behaviors you exhibit align with the values? Over time, your values and behaviors will become more aligned as you develop better self-awareness. Eliminating negative or misaligned behaviors will contribute to improved team morale and productivity.
- Leave your comfort zone
In today’s fast-paced workplace, comfortable routines require less energy and might be tempting. However, opportunities will pass by unnoticed if you passively accept what has always been. The broader the skills you can acquire as a middle manager, the more indispensable you are to your organization. Doing so will require stepping out of your comfort zone and regularly exploring “uncharted waters.”
- Think outside the box
To achieve high performance, regularly set aside time to record new and innovative ideas that could impact your organization’s business. Regardless of how good an idea is, it will remain just that – an idea – until you take action, and to succeed, you will have to combine innovation and execution. However, making time to think outside the box is the first step.
In recent years, C-suite executives have been glorified and targeted for development. Middle managers should take pride in their work, but their commitment to their firms has become conditional as they have been overlooked. With stronger mid-level management development programs in place, companies can improve morale among their middle layers – which can have a ripple effect in junior and senior ranks – thus improving retention of top talent across your organization, enriching the leadership pipeline, and setting the stage for sustainable success.