The Merry-Go-Round of Middle Management

I have a hunch that it is unpopular or perhaps risky to be in a middle management role. When the squeeze is on, the middle layer is often the first to go, and when times are buoyant the accolades and gratitude are aimed at the executive leadership team.

To expand on this point I was recently speaking with a client in the utilities sector and he told me that he is one of 14 direct reports to his manager. “Fourteen!” I exclaimed. He said, “Well it has improved, when I joined he had 21!” I challenged him on this but he was able to take me through the structure role by role and it was clear he was telling the truth. I asked what sort of relationship he had with his leader and he replied “I leave him alone. I am capable and like my autonomy – and he has enough squeaky wheels to deal with!” We then discussed his career ambitions and, while not striving for the top job, he is certainly keen to move beyond his current level. I asked him how he was going to get there – sadly “I have no idea” was the response; “They expect us to be great at our jobs, bring in the projects on time, keep our customers happy and avoid conflict with the subbies – but we are not shown the way in terms of our career path.”

This started me thinking over the challenges of being in middle management. How do you get beyond that level if investment is low? Or what if your role is made redundant and, when you apply for your next role, you are considered still to be middle management as you are yet to perform at senior or executive leadership level?

The phrase ‘war for talent’ has gained much significance during the past 15 years and there has been a tendency to focus on retaining high performers or top executives within this debate. However, recent research has called this into question. In a recent global survey of HR professionals by KPMG 59% of respondents agreed that there was a new war for talent and that war is different than in the past. The research finds that addressing skills shortages is a higher priority now than two years ago – and will become critical in the next two years. It states that skill shortages appear likely to increase as globalisation and competitive pressures take hold across sectors and industries and improving economic conditions spur employees to seek new jobs. Notably the findings reported that there is little evidence that typical ‘war for talent’ practices that focus on high performers actually contribute to improved business performance. Respondents agreed that it was time to turn to new, more holistic strategies for managing talent, with two-thirds of survey saying it is more important to address the talent needs of all employees in the context of the business and its strategy, and just over half agreeing that pursuing high potential talent at the team’s expense puts the business at risk.

In a similar vein to the KPMG research described above, the findings of a 2011 survey by the American Society for Training and Development across 2,000 mid-level managers found that only 11 percent felt well prepared to handle their increased responsibilities and challenges over the next two years.

Much has been written about the challenge of bringing people through the ranks to fulfill executive roles, but these results make it clear that the issue requires deeper analysis of existing views on leadership development. Specifically, at the middle management level has there been enough focused development to instil confidence, belief and ability to be ready for executive roles? I suspect not.

The reality is that it is not so much a question of how much has been invested in development, rather the kind of development that has been provided. Middle managers still need to translate big picture vision into day-to-day practice, so how much has been done to build strategic capability? Equally, has there been a transition from a focus on the execution of middle management responsibilities towards building leadership capability? Leadership is central to all levels of an organisation – it is necessary to embed authenticity and a sense of connection to the overall purpose of a business amongst all those who influence and inspire people.

It has been reported that up to 80 percent of future leaders will come from within organisations. Whilst research suggests a more holistic approach to talent management is needed, there is clearly a question over how this translates to the experiences of middle managers in the current climate – a period of time where building business capability is crucially dependent on the quality of people, especially at this level. To cite the often quoted phrase, what happens if we invest in our people and they leave? Well, what happens if we don’t and they stay?

Here are some other critical reasons for investing in and retaining middle management:

  • They are your successors;
  • They are often the ones with first hand relationships with team members;
  • They have a high level of intellectual property which is often hard to replace;
  • Retaining and developing talent is a lot cheaper than recruiting new and untested talent;
  • Business is becoming more complex, especially in relation to communication and information flow – middle managers have firsthand experience of the impact on employees and how to get key messages across;
  • The are the gateway between strategy and execution: the middle ‘makes it happen’;
  • They are connectors for the culture and translate the vision and values of a business every day;
  • Leadership is required at all times, both good and bad, so there is a need to have a back up to support executives when required;
  • They have ideally had the chance to ‘act up’ and can respond well in a crisis or when unexpected events occur;
  • People are more likely to want to perform when there is investment and recognition; and
  • Loyalty yields results.

As businesses begin to move into a recovery phase the issue of the new war for talent is a key priority. Channel your investment in development across the spectrum of leadership and ensure that all those with accountability for people have the level of mental preparedness and insight that is necessary to provide authentic, practical and motivational guidance. Middle managers are the gateway to delivering strategy and their ability to both understand this journey, and be ready for the step up when ready, is a crucial success factor for long-term business sustainability.

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