Middle managers can be an organisation’s biggest asset – provided they have open and honest career development conversations, are given opportunities to develop their skills and are empowered by senior managers to make change happen.
The value of this level of management has been highlighted by Hays in New Zealand: “As the link between senior leadership and operational staff, middle management are often the key to success in an organisation,” says Nick Deligiannis, managing director of Hays in Australia & New Zealand. “They embody an organisation’s culture, make change happen, are accountable for delivering results and are central to employee retention. Yet the undervaluing of middle management is all too common.”
This is a belief supported by Dr Zara Whysall, head of research at talent management specialists Kiddy & Partners. In the latest Hays Journal she says: “For years, middle managers have been overlooked when it comes to talent management, falling into the no-man’s-land between ‘top talent’ and ‘rising stars’.” Whysall believes the whole concept of middle management needs a rebrand, to a position that is recognised as a skilled craft. “The role needs to be seen, and treated, as a destination in itself,” she says.
To do this, Hays has collected insights from several experts and offers the following advice in its latest Hays Journal:
• Have open and honest career development conversations: “Ensure middle managers are benefiting from good-quality career conversations, to help them understand what they want from their careers,” says Whysall. “If they want to progress further, work out what the options are. At the same time, share succession requirements and provide clarity about what’s needed for them to move to the next level, if that’s of interest.”
• Create the right culture: Charles Jennings, Co-founder of learning and development consultancy 70:20:10 Institute, says, “If corporate culture lacks a culture of open, two-way communication, it is likely that middle management will suffer ‘squeeze’ and become unclear about strategic direction. This, in turn, leads to middle management being ill-equipped to set clear direction for first-level management and their teams.”
• Ask for your middle managers’ feedback: Similarly, senior managers should talk regularly with middle managers. “Ask them what they love about their job, what frustrates them, what gets in the way of them doing their best, and what changes would make it easier for them and their teams,” says Dr Maggi Evans, director of Mosaic Consulting. “I don’t have the answer, but I expect your middle managers do.”
• Develop middle managers: Dan Robertson, director of Vercida Consulting, suggests three key areas where middle managers can develop their skills. The first involves drawing on the diverse perspective of organisational stakeholders when making decisions in order to “see their own biases and work with others to mitigate them.” He says this will help middle managers to “see the world through the eyes of others.” Secondly, they must develop a curiosity that can lead to questioning rather than telling people what to do. Thirdly, they must learn to connect the dots in operational activity and spot issues before they appear.
• Develop their networking skills: Gordon Tinline, author of The Outstanding Middle Manager, says, “Middle managers in large organisations have got more links upwards, downwards and sideways than most other people in the organisation, but probably don’t take advantage of that. Managers need to learn how to use and develop networks, particularly in larger organisations, where a lot of it is influencing rather than having line-management power over someone.”
• Delegate effectively to your middle managers: Senior managers must learn to delegate to their middle managers. “When under pressure to deliver, senior managers may tend to ‘suck up’ power and responsibility, disempowering managers below them who then lack ownership and investment in any change, feeling that their own knowledge, experience and ideas are not valued,” warns Dan Lucy, deputy director, HR consultancy and research, at the Institute for Employment Studies. “Ultimately, this means they will not be engaged and give their best in making the change happen.”