Leadership Development: The Danger of Overlooking the Middle Manager

The term mid-level leader describes a very broad group. Depending on your industry, your company, and the roles within your organization, what specifically comprises mid-level leadership can vary widely. The only certainties are that virtually all organizations have middle managers and this level leader is a critical bridge between the bulk of the workforce and the senior management team. As MIT’s Jonathan Brynes observed, Regardless of what high-potential initiative the CEO chooses for the company, the middle management team’s performance will determine whether it is a success or failure. Given this observation, it’s surprising, then, how often the development of the mid-level leader is left to happenstance rather than creating a defined path of preparation and ongoing development. The ramifications are serious. Given the complexities of today’s VUCA environment, the need for strong, highly effective mid-level managers has never been more critical.

The Problem with Mid-Level Leadership Development

Mid-level leaders may not always be central players when developing overarching strategies for the organization, but they are frequently the players who are most responsible for cascading the strategy out to other leaders and employees while, at the same time, keeping teams moving incrementally toward goals. For this reason, mid-level leaders must be able to communicate and collaborate effectively with both higher-level management as well as peers and direct reports, and often outside the company with clients, vendors, and others. They must be able to think quickly and critically, while effectively coaching employees, completing tasks, and managing relationships across every level.

Because of the pivotal nature of this role, it’s clear that mid-level leadership development should have a high priority within every company. If we are not actively developing this group, how are we producing today’s bottom-line results while at the same time preparing the next generation of senior leaders? If left only to their own growth strategies, how is this impacting the productivity and engagement of their teams? 

What’s more, these leaders are keenly aware of their importance to the organization, yet most feel some level of dissatisfaction with their position and career outlook. According to an Accenture survey, fewer than 40 percent of middle managers said they were extremely or very satisfied with their current position. When asked to identify some of the problems that underlie this dissatisfaction, 43 percent said they feel as if they are doing all the work, but not getting credit for it. About one-third also said that they are frustrated because they have no clear career path. On the other hand, most respondents credit their companies for positive working conditions and good benefits. In other words, these leaders are finding some satisfaction in their work, but they’re calling out to their companies for better recognition, and organized paths for development and promotion within the organization. And traditional methods for addressing these needs are not working.

Better Leadership Development Strategies

Failing to adequately prepare the next generation of senior leaders means leaving the leadership bench empty for the future. Falling short of equipping mid-level leaders with the tools they need to properly support their teams is a drain on productivity and effectiveness across the organization. But a one-size-fits-all training program is ineffective these days. Instead, mid-level leaders need dynamic strategies to address their specific learning needs creating the agile leaders needed to lead the organization of today and the future. Training your mid-level managers in big groups or in a traditional classroom setting alone no longer gets the job done. The range of skills needed is expansive, and the needs of each mid-level leader vary widely, depending on their role in the organization, their upward trajectory, and personal aspirations. Because each individual and position are unique, the learning must be tailored directly to the needs of the role and the person. 

To start, organizations must identify the needs of both the individual and the company. These needs should be based on both short and long-term business goals as well as personal growth targets while tapping into the strengths of the leader. The development path should address specific and actionable areas for improvement. Then, in addition to content learning, the leader should also be paired up with an accountability partner a coach who can help him or her reflect on specific real situations and decisions to polish the leader’s hard and soft skills through actionable feedback alternate approaches that can be put to use right away.

Bringing new skills and behaviors to workers is more successful when it’s done in small doses. Micro-learning, or breaking lessons into smaller pieces and shorter activities, has been shown to increase retention by more than 20 percent when compared to more traditional forms of training. One of the reasons for this is the need for direct interaction between the information and the learner, or the ability to translate something learned into action. By pairing content learning with an accountability partner (coach), mid-level leadership development can be transformed from a tedious, overwhelming training program into everyday practice that can bring immediate visible and sustainable results.

Preparing Your Roster for Success

Middle managers are directing roughly 80 percent of our workforce and many middle managers have the potential to be the future leaders of the company. There’s no doubt that every organization needs a talent pipeline for the highest level roles in the company, as every current leader will inevitably leave the company at some point. In the meantime, mid-level leaders are responsible for translating the company’s plans into daily tasks for their teams and faithfully carrying out the company’s mission. These leaders, of course, are individuals with ambitions of their own, and taking steps to drive their engagement and job satisfaction can only benefit everyone over time. By clarifying these mid-level roles within your company and addressing the needs of your leaders by providing individualized paths for leadership development, your bench will contain a full roster of people ready for the next step, and an entire team of fully engaged workers who are ready to take on new, expanded responsibilities.

Whether you have yet to design and implement a mid-level leadership development program, or you want to ensure that your current program positions your organization for success, we’re here to help. Contact Mike Milsted at 262-786-9200 or via email at mmilsted@lak-group.com, if you have questions or to schedule a conversation about developing your mid-level managers.