Stuck in the middle

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Sandwiched between those starting out on the first rungs of management and those at the top of the ladder, it's easy for middle managers to loose out when it comes to development. In this article Andrew Clayson argues that ignoring the training needs of this often over-looked group could cost a company dear.

Ensuring middle and senior management are engaged and enthusiastically committed to a business' strategy is more important than ever, for while senior managers may be in charge of the map, middle managers have control of the accelerator, gears and brake. Right now, businesses reacting to the current economic environment may be considering cutting training for these managers, despite the significant impact this may cause in both the short and medium term. Yet this does not have to be a case of either/or, with a little dexterity, training can continue, with managers and their business both winning.

Photo of Andrew Clayson"A clearly understood and published approach for preparing people to move into middle management roles (or up to more senior levels) will allow you to plan your training interventions appropriately for the behaviours and competencies your business needs. Without this, you will fail to create an effective pipeline of candidates for promotion."

Good middle management in any business is an active interface between front-line people and senior management. They can sense the mood 'on the shop floor' and feed that upwards, or translate senior management vision into tangible objectives that can be delivered. Their attitude, behaviour and approach acutely influence their direct reports, especially if their approach becomes predominantly negative. Maintaining support for them is consequently very important.

So if middle managers are at the pivot point between following and leading, how do you help them? A clearly understood and published approach for preparing people to move into middle management roles (or up to more senior levels) will allow you to plan your training interventions appropriately for the behaviours and competencies your business needs. Without this, you will fail to create an effective pipeline of candidates for promotion and your people won't know how they will progress in the business.

Training interventions that combine formal training courses and a coaching/mentoring approach are usually more effective than a simple 'sheep dip' in the pool of management training courses. Such a combination delivers higher returns because the training course doesn't simply end on the course's last day – it continues throughout the coaching period and accommodates the needs of the attendee.

Here are some thoughts on how you can bring out the right behaviours in your managers (middle or otherwise):

Leadership v management

Ensure your business has clear views on the difference between leadership and management and make sure middle managers (and candidates) extol this. Leadership is predominantly about behaviours, management is more about skills. Leadership means:

  • taking responsibility
  • getting out of the way when necessary
  • allowing the most competent person to lead when necessary (regardless of seniority)
  • providing support

Warren Bennis said: "Leaders do the right thing, managers do things right." So be clear on where leadership is appropriate and when simple management will do and make sure everyone knows.

Using project work intelligently

Project work comes up all the time and often presents an ideal development opportunity. For example, have a middle manager work with senior management to help investigate options and write up your divisional or corporate five-year vision. Incorporate sub-objectives into projects to stretch people by, perhaps, mandating the middle manager to get input from all departments in the business for a competitive review.

Asking apparently unconnected departments for feedback may open up new possibilities – it should certainly open up new communications channels. The most important aspect here is to have the individual work outside their normal domain and to develop their horizontal management skills by communicating across the business.

Let them make mistakes

In a world of change, allow your managers to innovate, use new approaches and discover what goes wrong when many of them fail. The essential rule here is that the attempt to change should not be criticised – but everyone should understand the strengths and failings of the behaviours and outcomes that resulted from the change and learn from them.

Be consistent and give support

Being consistent is not about giving everyone the same thing, it's about repeatedly giving similar things to similarly competent people. If someone has potential then give them some stretching project work, but make sure you can see a way to give a similarly skilled person some project work the following quarter.

Potential leaders also need support – someone to model because behaviour is more important than skills. A coach within the business is good, but an external coach can bring new perspectives and ideas. Regular coaching sessions are ideal, but so is a 15-minute phone call at times, so look for that sort of flexibility in any coaching model you deploy.

The payback period for looking after your middle managers is about four years; by then you will have built a strong pool of talent to promote from. When you come to promote into or out of middle management roles, the successful candidate will need to unlearn the behaviours of their old role and start displaying the behaviours required in their new role to be successful.

Give them a chance to learn these behaviours as early as possible. Functional training generates managers – you need behavioural changes to create leaders. Change your emphasis and the costs should be minimal. In fact, this will lead to timely benefits that will far outweigh the resources used to set them up, by improving engagement and performance now, and delivering a better developed management team that are more suitable for promotion in the future.

Andrew Clayson is a director at the leadership and team development company Oxygenic Partnership Ltd.

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