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Stuck in the Middle with You: The Middle Matters

This is the second in a three-part series exploring mid-level leadership development. In part one, I discussed the risks of assuming all mid-level leaders are the same, and the necessity to understand the development priorities of mid-level leaders in the context of their unique and specific business drivers and priorities.

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

While mid-level leaders face challenges unique to their specific roles, we also know they confront challenges common to all leaders at their level. According to Maximising Middle Managers (Bersin & Associates, 2011), organisations that focus on developing their middle leaders in the areas of communication, managing change, and coaching (specifically) can expect improved, positive impact on engagement, retention, and teamwork.

Stuck in the Middle with YouOver the years I have worked with many organisations locally and internationally. I have also met one-on-one with hundreds of mid-level leaders and heard them describe the challenges they confront on a daily basis. While the descriptions and contexts of these challenges may vary, the themes remain consistent.

Drawing on research and my personal experience, I see the following as some of the more common challenges:

  • Navigating flatter and matrixed organisational structures, building relationships over and over again (as stakeholders change with each restructure), and influencing others to get the commitment necessary to drive results.
  • Constantly needing to refocus teams to keep them engaged and change-ready versus change-fatigued. Energising themselves and their teams to keep the “BAU” (Business as Usual) activities going, while concurrently implementing initiatives in support of transformational change. Leaders at this level are often asked to lead changes whilst also being recipients of the change.
  • Working around the clock across multiple time zones and cultures. Managing diverse teams of people at different career stages, and with different motivators, career expectations, and engagement drivers (e.g., generational and cultural differences).
  • Making decisions and judgments about how to execute a strategy and/or make sense of it in the context of their particular business domain. Engaging others in that strategy and mobilising the resources behind it.
  • Managing themselves in an environment of constant volatility, uncertainty, change, and ambiguity (VUCA).

These challenges are big, and most of the skills required to overcome them are not necessarily acquired or honed at lower leader levels. They are often new skills that require significant focus and development, and include areas such as leading change, influencing, coaching coaches, strategic thinking, and executing strategy.

Mid-level leaders admit that they are struggling. In fact, a DDI study found that only one in 10 mid-level leaders report feeling well-prepared to meet the challenges of their roles. Similarly, the Aberdeen Group (2013) found that 46 percent of executives believe that the great leadership gaps exist at the mid-level. Our own mid-level assessment data also points to significant gaps in these areas. So, what are organisations missing when it comes to developing this leader group? Structuring development experiences for the mid-level requires a different approach, one which my colleague Jim Kauffman recently addressed in Outside Looking In (T + D, June 2014). Jim identified three key characteristics of effective mid-level leader development programs:

  • Insight-based learning. Because they have moved beyond foundational skill development, mid-level leaders require learning that focuses less on absorbing content and more on gaining insights into new ways to confront work challenges.
  • Peer learning. Mid-level leaders come to a training event armed with experience and valuable perspectives gathered from across the organisation. The opportunity to share these experiences with peers provides a rare opportunity to share the tacit knowledge of the organisation, and enrich the development experience.
  • Integration of execution and learning. Mid-level leaders want immediate results; they want to test and develop their new knowledge while they are still in the classroom. To accomplish this, participants should be asked to work on actual job challenges.

Currently, we are in the midst of a “perfect storm,” within which senior leaders are relying upon their mid-level leaders to do more, mid-level leaders are feeling overwhelmed and under-equipped, and HR groups are struggling to find the resources and solutions necessary to fill in the gaps. As noted in the first article of this series, identifying and executing the “right” development at this level can be difficult. The differences that exist across this group can make it hard to pinpoint common development priorities. Development that focuses on the common challenges and capabilities identified here—whilst adopting instructional approaches that speak to the needs and nuances of individual mid-level leaders—will go a long way toward building strength in the middle.

Coming up next in part three of Stuck in the Middle with You, I will address actions that organisations can take to ensure a robust and effective transition to mid-level leader roles.

DDI’s Business Impact Leadership® (BIL) is a suite of high-impact courses specifically designed for mid-level and senior leaders. BIL will prepare your most critical leaders to meet leadership challenges and drive successful strategy execution by accelerating their development and equipping them to step into more-senior roles.

Mark Busine is managing director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 07 Aug, 2015,

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