The Crucible in the Middle

CEOs have it tough, juggling strategic priorities and dealing with constant pressure from investors, regulators and other stakeholders. But the jobs characterized by ever-increasing challenges, unprecedented complexity and continually rising expectations are actually a few levels further down at the mid-level.

Senior leaders increasingly expect more from middle managers and rely on this group to connect business strategy and execution at the front line. Paul Osterman, MIT management professor and author of The Truth About Middle Managers, described the reality this way in a 2009 podcast: “As organizations get flatter, there’s much more for [middle managers] to do. They have to communicate down and up. They have to coordinate. There’s a lot of evidence that decentralized organizations perform better than very top-heavy ones … but for decentralized organizations to work, you need strong middle managers.”

The pressure seems to have created a fair amount of frustration within this group. A 2011 Bersin and Associates study, “Maximizing Middle Managers: Four Practices to Drive Business Results,” revealed that mid-level leaders had the steepest engagement decline of any employee population in the wake of the global recession.

Understanding and Influencing the Environment
In “Put Your Money in the Middle,” a 2010 study conducted by talent management consultancy Development Dimensions International (DDI), seven in 10 mid-level leaders reported their work stress had increased in the previous 18 months. The study also showed that nearly half of mid-level leaders feel stagnation in their job, and 54 percent would be willing to take a demotion to a non-leadership position for the same amount of money. DDI research also has shown that only one in 10 mid-level leaders report feeling well prepared to meet the current challenges of their roles.

Things weren’t always this way. Before decades of organizational flattening, restructuring and re-engineering, the mid-level manager had access to many organizational levels that enabled upward advancement. For example, before it started restructuring in 2000, Unilever had 36 organizational levels. Afterward, it had six. At each step along the former upward progression, a leader could gain mastery over the job and the skills required for success, and at some point expect to be promoted again. This approach was more ordered and leader-friendly than the more amorphous, stressful current reality.

This adds up to bad news for middle managers and their organizations. But in the cloud of pressure surrounding the work environment for mid-level leaders, there is a silver lining: Being a middle manager is hard, but experience in today’s difficult middle manager roles might pay off for those leaders who advance to the senior level tomorrow. Further, even those who aren’t destined for the senior level can grow and become more effective if their organizations take a few key steps.
For organizations to take advantage of the complexity and difficulty that define mid-level roles, they must do two things. They need to recognize the challenges that mid-level leaders are facing and they must provide opportunities to develop mid-level leaders’ skills within the pressure cooker-like atmosphere that defines their roles.

Both steps require that talent leaders understand and proactively influence the environment in which their middle managers lead. Some organizations have begun to do that, acknowledging the importance of the mid-level and addressing their middle managers’ needs. Of the companies interviewed for DDI’s 2011 “Strengthening the Middle” study, 75 percent indicated they were either increasing or maintaining talent management investments at the mid-level.

Leveraging the Crucible Effect
While it’s encouraging that organizations are increasingly dedicated to making mid-level management more manageable, organizations need to assess and develop a crop of middle managers. These individuals should have the potential to ascend to senior-level positions and to use their greatest talents and motivations in current roles. The mid-level should be viewed as a proving ground that will provide valuable experience in juggling priorities, meeting demands and dealing with complexity. For the organization to succeed, these managers will need to be at the top of their game every day to drive results and execute strategy.

Making the most of the middle is about addressing their needs. The following tactics can facilitate and promote development.

Recognize and empathize. Organizations need to go out of their way to communicate to mid-level leaders that they understand the challenges they are facing, and that they are willing to provide them with whatever support is necessary to help them overcome those challenges. Being empathetic to the realities of “the new middle” and finding innovative ways to keep leaders engaged can keep this mission-critical group feeling appreciated and motivated to address their daily challenges. Establishing mentor relationships and providing interesting short-term developmental job assignments and a safe environment to discuss developmental needs are just some of the ways this can be done. In the end, retaining the best leaders may rest on how an organization nurtures them while they are middle managers.

Measure performance, identify potential and assess readiness. When it comes to managing talent, there are no three words more consistently misconstrued, misunderstood or misused than performance, potential and readiness.

Performance is what an individual has done in the past. Potential is one’s likelihood of leadership growth, and readiness is the degree to which an individual fits into a specific role, job or level. They are all important, but are managed and measured in different ways.

With the proper performance management system — clear accountabilities, measurable results — measuring performance should be relatively easy. But spotting potential and assessing readiness are trickier. Potential is determined not through job performance, a personality test or by plotting a leader’s ability across a 9-box grid. It’s determined through the structured integration of input, gathered from individuals who have worked with a particular leader and witnessed his or her leadership firsthand on a specific set of universal leadership potential factors.

Readiness is best determined by a methodical assessment of a leader’s talents when exposed to the challenges the leader will encounter in his or her next role. A developmental assessment center, which brings together a robust set of realistic simulations and assessment tools to capture a holistic picture of the individual, or even an old-fashioned stretch assignment are effective ways to determine readiness.

For the mid-level, organizations need to be able to measure and manage performance for all middle managers, while accurately identifying those with the potential to move higher in the organization and when those high potentials are ready for their next role. It’s only when organizations get all of these right — keeping all leaders focused on their job performance while simultaneously building a pipeline of future executive talent — that they can really leverage the complexity and challenge of the middle.

Leverage mid-level talent to develop mid-level talent. Middle managers are smart, productive, hard-working individuals, many of whom have been successful throughout their careers. In many cases the only person who can fully understand what a mid-level leader is facing is another mid-level leader. Therefore, some of the most effective development will come when middle managers interact with one another and share stories about how they’ve learned to deal with their current roles. To ensure this exchange of ideas happens, talent leaders must find ways to bring their middle managers together, either physically or virtually, as often and as easily as possible. Middle managers value this interaction, and in the long run the organization will benefit as much as the middle managers do.

Sculpt together, polish alone. Developing mid-level leaders is no easy task. Whether they are high potentials or high performers, as a group they need a common core set of advanced leadership skills, but each leader also will have individual development needs.

The best approach is to sculpt together and polish alone. Sculpt together means take advantage of the shared development needs of mid-level leaders by developing them together through a structured program that utilizes a consistent set of leadership practices aligned with a company’s specific business drivers. When they learn together, leaders can begin speaking the same leadership language, recognize its impact on the organization and begin sharing with each other how they will apply these practices.

The most promising mid-level leaders also will have to focus on their individual leadership styles, personality traits and unique challenges. Addressing these development needs is like polishing these leaders’ leadership abilities. This is best done one-on-one with an effective internal mentor or an executive coach who can work with the leader to mold the new skills to his or her unique situation.

This combination of sculpting and polishing can provide an organization with a large number of skilled mid-level leaders as well as a select few who can emerge as the strongest of the strong.

The challenges facing middle managers won’t subside anytime soon. However, if leaders can successfully make it through the crucible that is today’s mid-level, they will emerge better prepared. To reap the rewards that come with such a promise, organizations will have to see those challenges in terms of the development opportunities they can provide, and do what they can now to forge a new breed of senior leader for the future.

Kris Routch is an executive consultant at talent management consultancy Development Dimensions International. He can be reached at