Mid-level managers often feel like the forgotten middle layer. Contrary to the perception of these employees as intermediaries far-removed from the organisation’s bottom line, this often overlooked but critical group plays a key role in supporting strategic initiatives. In fact, in a large-scale analysis of one industry, the behaviour of middle managers was found to account for 22.3% of the variance in revenue.
Why are middle managers important?
Businesses need middle managers who can lead employees, motivate their team, and communicate the organisation’s strategy and vision. But their role is also tricky for a few reasons. Firstly, middle managers must follow and lead, following the direction of the senior leadership team while inspiring and steering their own team. Secondly, their role requires frequent gear-shifting, having to follow direction from above and manage upwards while adopting a more assertive, downward-managing style when dealing with direct reports. When dealing with peers, it can even mean wielding their influence to ‘manage across’.
And while the narrative in business writing often focuses on the isolation that comes with leadership, less emphasis is placed on the isolation of managing in the middle, which does not always come with the inclusive feeling of being part of a wider senior leadership team.
High-potential middle managers can become leaders
Given all of this, it’s important this critical group is nurtured. Aside from being critical to business success, middle managers play an important role in change management – often acting as the “ears and eyes” of the senior management since they are closer to day-to-day operations and the more ‘hands-on’ employees.
And then there is leadership. Often middle managers make excellent leaders. It’s therefore important that these high potential ones are identified early and continuously developed.
Here are some steps all businesses can take to support their middle management.
How to support middle managers
1. Provide mentorship programs
Employee mentorship schemes can help to boost engagement levels. But they are especially important for mid-level employees, whose next career move is often less clear than that of more junior colleagues. For middle managers, the choice is often to move into a people-focused leadership position, or into a more specialised ‘knowledge leader’ role.
Pairing middle managers with more experienced mentors – those in either leadership positions or otherwise – helps the middle manager to establish their ambitions and to draw out what kind of future their skillset is best suited to.
Asking the manager via a quick survey what they’re looking to achieve from the mentor scheme will help determine their best mentor fit.
2. Empower middle managers to run training sessions in their respective areas of expertise
Rather than turning to external sources for training in specialised areas, small businesses could consider upskilling or reskilling their workforce by leveraging their internal experts – who may just be their middle managers. By offering this kind of training, these employees can be reminded of the value they bring to the organisation, while reinforcing their position as subject matter experts to the wider organisation.
Leading these sessions has the added benefit of enabling employees to develop public speaking and presenting skills – key attributes that middle managers will always be required to hone.
3. Offer tailored training opportunities
Learning and development opportunities are of huge importance to this middle management group. At the managerial level, while the emphasis on technical skills is still very important, soft skills become even more critical. Skills that include how to manage and coach effectively to time management and problem solving are all vital areas for managers to develop.
Surveys are a useful way of gauging the areas in which middle managers would like to upskill.
4. Adopt an agile approach to management
Don’t micromanage your middle managers. It is better to provide your strategic input to middle management and then allow them the freedom to implement those strategies with a ‘high-power’ mindset. This is a key characteristic of the agile approach of working, whereby team objectives are set but the teams themselves are empowered to determine how they will meet these objectives, setting their own goals – also known as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
5. Focus on succession planning
While not all middle managers will be destined for leadership roles, some may possess natural leadership qualities. Different from being technically competent high performers, natural leaders tend to possess the soft skills of strong communication, influence, and integrity – among other attributes.
Succession planning is critical to long-term business success, and yet according to research by Forbes, two in three organisations do not have a succession management strategy in place. In addition, according to ELMO’s 2021 HR Industry Benchmark Survey, 13% of HR professionals cited succession planning as a key challenge for their organisation over the next 12 months.
No employee will feel inclined to stick around in a directionless role. In the case of emerging leaders, it’s important that conversations around career aspirations are started early, and that solid career paths are mapped out for them. By failing to begin these discussions early enough, an employer could unwittingly open itself up to unnecessary risk, such as the loss of a valued, high potential middle manager.
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