But management experts say sound technical or functional expertise is most important to get a foot in the midlevel management door.
Because midlevel managers are often at the center of organizational information, being able to network and build relationships is important, said Isabella of the University of Virginia. “What I find distinguishes really higher-level middle managers is overall their ability to be translators,” she said.
According to Cheryl Getty, senior vice president of talent management and organizational development at Leidos Holdings Inc., a services provider in national security and engineering industries, midlevel managers also must be able to think beyond their “own particular sphere of influence and accountability.”
The CEB’s Kropp said his firm refers to this cross-collaboration skill as network performance — being able to introduce new processes and work methods across the organization by adapting ideas from other functional areas.
A subskill within network performance is prioritization, Kropp said. Midlevel managers think about and rank their work not based on their own job description objectives but instead the organization’s objectives. “A good, simple litmus test here is if you ask a middle manager to do something and their response is: ‘Well, that’s not part of my job description.’ In that case, they don’t have the right competency around prioritization,” he said.
In addition to working with a cross-functional mindset, midlevel managers must have solid interpersonal abilities — being able to manage others — and intrapersonal abilities — being able to manage themselves.
Joe Ungemah, vice president of talent solutions for talent assessment company SHL, said the bounce back from the financial crisis and recession — a period during which most companies cut ranks, dealing major blows to employee morale and engagement — has pressured midlevel managers to bolster their ability to manage emotional intelligence. “It’s almost getting back to basics around ensuring that they’re building a good employment relationship with their staff,” he said.
Having solid interpersonal skills requires empathy, humility and modesty, said Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, vice president of research and innovation at talent assessment company Hogan Assessments. On the other hand, intrapersonal skills requires mood regulation, confidence and optimism, things that help managers “stay calm and positive, even when things aren’t going well,” Chamorro-Premuzic said.
Another skill midlevel managers must have is teamwork. Paul Osterman, a professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “The Truth About Middle Managers: Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter,” said this skill has become more important as corporate America leans toward ad hoc team projects.
“These pose challenges because you often have teams that are unstable,” Osterman said. “You have new people coming in that you haven’t worked with. You may have a team, and then people may leave and go on to another project.”
The uncertainty that comes with managing teams also applies to operational excellence as a skill, or being able to develop strategy and adjust when things don’t go as planned, said Denice Biocca, a senior human resources leader in General Electric Co.’s Oil & Gas division.
Regardless of the emphasis on soft skills, MIT’s Osterman said the technical nature of midlevel managers’ roles still represents a majority of their day-to-day work. Further, midlevel managers’ ability to maintain a high level of functional expertise provides ammunition for perhaps the most important soft skill they need: the ability to influence those below and above them.
The ability to influence is different for newer and more seasoned midlevel managers. “When I speak up in a meeting where we’re trying to solve a strategic problem, I speak from years of experience, I speak from understanding the market or product capabilities,” Biocca said. “And so I bring that experience to the table and that’s how I influence.”
Newer midlevel managers influence differently. Biocca said she might influence through facilitation and by connecting. “So in the same situation, I am drawing out the individual who has expertise, I am connecting three different points around the room and saying: ‘OK, Fred says that the product has the capability to move in this way, which could open up a new market space. Sam over there in marketing says: “Well, in this market space we’ve got customers who are moving away from technology X and moving into technology Y.”’
“I am sitting there listening to three people who may not be listening to one another, and I’m connecting those dots … it’s a very different influence skill.”