Identifying Talent at the Middle Management Level01.May.2010
Middle management is often the forgotten layer of talent in organisations. Here, Kylie Bains looks at the challenges facing those wedged in the middle of the corporate sandwich and outlines what can be done to help them on the road to successful leadership.
In our experience, development spend in most large organisations tends to be focused in two areas: on senior leaders, where the stakes are of course highest; and on graduate entrants and those moving into their first managerial roles, where key skills such as objective setting and delegation need to be acquired. Sandwiched between senior management and first-line managers is a large population of middle managers who are frequently overlooked. Indeed, the quality of developmental support received by mid-level managers is at best hugely variable and at worst non-existent, determined in the most part by the skills, attitudes and availability of their immediate bosses. This is compounded by the fact that many middle managers are at a natural crossroads in their career – a time when they need a great deal of support.
“There is no doubt that the mid-management role is probably the hardest there is,” observes Lynne Weedall, HR Director of Carphone Warehouse. She’s right. Several years ago we set up YSC View as a direct response to our clients’ needs for a development and assessment solution tailored to this population. As our View offering has grown, our experience has confirmed that middle managers are indeed very keen for challenge and guidance about how to develop themselves as future leaders. We have also observed the following key themes:
The complexities of being in the middle
Firstly, people in the middle layer of organisations tend to be the most stressed. They often take on huge workloads in an effort to prove themselves and to get noticed by talent scouts in their organisations. They also have to fit in and conform to ways of working that may go against their natural grain. They spend most of their careers adapting to what’s around them and then, when they become senior leaders, suddenly they are told that they need to be distinctive and authentic! “The frustration I see in my dealings across the business world, relates to a feeling, or perception, of lack of control over destination,” says Carol Bagnald, Regional Commercial Director for London at HSBC. Which is why investing in a culture of continuous learning and development is so critical at this stage, she believes. It could be “the biggest differential between those who break through, and those who don’t.”
The lack of role models
Secondly, many middle managers simply don’t understand what “great” looks like at the next level – and beyond. As a consequence, it can be very challenging for people to prepare for senior leadership, or even to decide whether it is something they genuinely aspire to. They face steep challenges in their work while often receiving minimal coaching or mentoring, and can feel a sense of powerlessness as a result.
The need for real leaders
Thirdly, we have noticed that there is a stronger emphasis on technical competence for middle managers over leadership capability. As Nick Pope, Global Director of Learning & Salesforce Training at Bausch & Lomb points out, there’s a tendency in the healthcare sector to base promotions on sales skills rather than management competence. The danger is that you end up with a manager acting like “a super sales rep”, saving the day for his team, firefighting issues – but “never truly assuming a leadership position”, he says. The same emphasis on technical competence is often found in banking and financial services. This may be an understandable consequence of the strong regulatory environment, but it makes it more difficult for strong people leaders to emerge.
The “XX” gap
Finally, our research on gender differences indicates that women are rated less strongly by others early on in their careers. It is not until mid-way in their career that this pattern starts to change.
Typically women place a much stronger emphasis on competence than men and consequently may not be projecting as much confidence as their male counterparts until they are absolutely sure that they are excellent at their jobs.
Some clients have talked about a degree of unwillingness to invest in talent in middle management layers, simply because the populations there are so large. After all, how can you make an impact when the development spend gets spread so thinly? Our response to this is that it just makes it even more important to have robust ways to identify talent at this level so that resources can be targeted most effectively. They are, after all, the leaders of tomorrow.