Measuring the Middle

There’s nothing glamorous about a middle manager’s life. There is no lavish travel to exotic locations for speaking engagements, no starring role in corporate earnings conference calls, and no magazine features in the business press imparting credit for great culture change. But at 10.8 million strong, or 7.6 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to recent government data, the middle management layer is increasingly significant.

“I really see middle managers in an incredible position of power within organizations — and one that’s not necessarily recognized,” said Lynn Isabella, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

Definitions of a midlevel manager vary, but the demographic often sits below the vice president level and above frontline managers and individual contributors. Their role in today’s business environment is to ensure that strategy from the top comes to fruition by directing and meeting the needs of those below them as well as collaborating with other functional areas. Isabella said midlevel managers are the “nexus of information” because they get information from the top, from people who report to them, as well as their peers in other functions.

The job has grown increasingly complex thanks to changes in the domestic economy and globalization. According to an October 2012 research survey from the Corporate Executive Board, or CEB, a member-based advisory and research firm, 57 percent of managers said they’re more likely to work with a geographically dispersed workforce than three years ago; 76 percent said the amount of information they received has increased; and 67 percent said there is more collaboration required to get their work done. What’s more, to get through their daily job, 60 percent of midlevel managers reported having to work with 10 or more people.

“Managers have got more direct reports in different places, and this requires a different type of performance for them to be successful,” said Brian Kropp, managing director at the CEB.

While the skills and competencies have changed, so have the means by which companies measure and assess their midlevel ranks. Companies lean heavily on 360-degree assessments — a multisource feedback vehicle drawing from midlevel managers’ subordinates, peers and bosses — as a baseline for measurement.

Companies are also using personality tests, learning agility assessments and behavioral simulations to paint a more holistic picture of midlevel managers. “We’re seeing a lot of evolution within simulations and assessments to be more about scenarios, more about extended games that you play, more about cognitive testing than we’ve seen in the past,” Kropp said.

Got Skills? The Evolving Mid-Manager Skill Set