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Stuck in the Middle With You

This is the first in a three-part series exploring mid-level leadership development.

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

According to most leadership pipeline models, I am a mid-level leader. I transitioned from being a people leader—managing and mobilising a small team of individual contributors—but have not yet scaled the giddy heights of strategic leadership; I don’t have responsibility for setting the organisational vision and strategy. Don’t get me wrong; I’m OK with this mid-level label. What’s interesting is that I work with many others in this same category—yet we perform very different roles and functions within our respective organisations.

Stuck in the Middle With YouBy way of example, the other day I met with a “mid-level” leader from a global mining organisation. Her role and responsibilities were very focused on driving operational excellence and maximising the output of a single site—safely and reliably. While she had some eye on the future, her focus was very much on the short- to medium-term.

Contrast her role with mine. I am responsible for setting and executing the plan for the local operation of my global HR consulting firm. I need to protect and grow the performance of my operation, maintain and enhance the brand in my region, ensure alignment with global practices and strategic priorities, and mobilise a group of professionals around short- and longer-term business priorities.

The more I reflect on our same-name yet dissimilar roles, the more I am convinced that arriving at a single definition of mid-level leadership is difficult. For convenience, we tend to throw leaders in this single bucket, when the reality is that most of them do very different things. While there may be a few capabilities that are core to successful mid-level leadership, context will often drive the need for others that are uniquely specific.

In an organisation looking to expand internationally, for example, mid-level leaders should be entrepreneurial and capable of capitalising on global market opportunities. They must also take appropriate risks and drive effective strategies (local alliance building, marketing, distribution, etc.), and possess important personal attributes, including humility and openness to change.

Now consider mid-level leaders in organisations looking to drive operational efficiency. The requirements for their roles include analysing information and identifying opportunities for process improvements, establishing clear plans for implementing those improvements, and setting clear parameters for decision making. They would need to bring a strong analytical ability, high-level planning and organising skills, and sound commercial judgment.

Maybe this inability to wrap our arms around the mid-level leader “persona” explains our struggle to address the group’s learning and development needs. Perhaps this is also why many organisations consciously choose to devote their limited development resources elsewhere. DDI research tells us that only 25 percent of executives think their company’s mid-level management development program is extremely or very effective. Aberdeen, meanwhile, reveals that 46 percent of executives believe the greatest lack of leadership development in their organisations lies at the mid-level. And, according to Maximising Middle Managers (Bersin & Associates, 2011): “Middle managers receive fewer resources, manage more people, and are less engaged than all other employee groups.”

This lack of focus does not speak to the group’s importance. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, the mid-level was most indicated (by half of HR professionals) as the level of leadership that needed to be at-speed sooner than the rest.

So how should we approach the development of mid-level leaders?

  • Firstly, identify the development priorities and actions that address their unique and specific needs. These should be based on a clear understanding of your business drivers, a diagnostic process that clarifies individual and group strengths and development opportunities, and a well-crafted development plan.
  • Secondly, understand the challenges commonly faced by this leader group and ensure that incumbents are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need. Your mid-level leaders are already struggling with many of these challenges, so the longer you delay development, the more risk you create for your organisation.
  • Finally, manage the transition to the middle level.

One Size Won’t Fit All

To get a better understanding of mid-level leaders’ unique development needs, let’s revisit a recent blog. In Careful... Leadership Might Get Loud, I introduced five questions that leaders must confront if they are to navigate the responsibilities of their role successfully. While I believe these have relevance for leaders at all levels, they are particularly relevant to the mid-level for one reason: There are more differences within this group (vs. any other).

The five questions and accompanying considerations are:

  1. What am I required to do, or what do I want to do (the “What’” and “How”)?
  2. What do I bring that enables me to do it effectively, and what do I bring that could derail my success?
  3. What can I change, and what do I need to manage?
  4. How do I change?
  5. What help do I need?

Begin with the End in Mind (Question One): The range of role responsibilities for mid-level leaders is vast, and if mid-level leaders are not clear on their organisation’s priorities and key business challenges, efforts for development may lack focus and relevance. The key is to understand the challenges appropriate to a particular role or group so that development is ultimately focused on the “right” things.

Diagnose Readiness (Questions Two and Three): Once leaders’ critical business challenges are defined, it is important to assess their readiness to deliver on these priorities. Using a thorough and robust assessment will allow for identification of their relevant strengths and development areas within the context unique to their challenges. You will then understand which aspects of their background, capabilities, and personality may enable or derail their success.

Determine Development Priorities (Questions Four and Five): Based on the information gathered through the assessment, structure targeted and relevant development plans (for groups and individuals) that address key gaps and leverage valuable strengths.

Looking Ahead

Coming up next in the second and third installments of Stuck in the Middle with You, I will take a deeper dive into the key challenges that new and existing mid-level leaders face, and prescribe actions that organisations can take to ensure a robust and effective development experience.

Designed specifically for the mid-level, DDI recently launched Leader3Ready®—a powerful, realistic assessment experience that makes it easier to obtain critical insights about your mid-level leaders. It links to your business goals so development is focused on the right things, diagnoses readiness to deliver on these priorities, and provides clear focus for individual and group development.

Mark Busine is managing director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 31 Jul, 2015,
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