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Building Leadership Strength at the Mid-Level

A recent study by DDI and the Institute of Executive Development examines the global challenges and best practices in mid-level leader assessment and development.
Building Leadership Strength at the Mid-Level

“Our heart has always gone out to the mid-level leaders because they are always in compression mode. We must provide them with support, resources, and the development they need to be able to deliver. We know if we don’t do this, we won’t be able to deliver on our business strategy.” Nancy D. Williams, SPHR, vice president, manager, organizational effectiveness, Huntington Bancshares, Inc.

The above quote says it all: Mid-level leaders are in a difficult spot. Their jobs are complex and difficult, and grow more so with each passing year. Yet, organizations need their mid-level leaders to perform at a high level. The strength of leadership capability at the mid-level is, after all, a primary determinant of an organization’s ability to execute its business strategy.

So what are leading organizations doing to take stock of the current readiness of their mid-level leaders, and develop them so they can meet business needs sooner?

That was what we sought to find out in a recent study we conducted in partnership with The Institute of Executive Development, Strengthening the Middle: Global Challenges and Best Practices in Mid-level Leader Assessment and Development. For this study, we interviewed talent management executives at 20 highly respected organizations from around the world. Their responses are insightful and also highlight several best practices in assessment and development at the mid-level.

Here we offer a selection of the trends and findings from this report.

75 percent of the companies we interviewed are either increasing or maintaining talent management investments at the mid-level.

Across the board, we found talent management executives who talk about the importance of their organization investing in the mid-level.

“The mid-level is critical in terms of succession planning, coaching, and development,” said Sharon Arad, Ph.D., director, assessment & coaching, engagement & performance management, Cargill. “It is very important to make sure they are ready, actively developing their leadership and business skills, as they have a direct link to our business success, either now or in the future. We have to make sure we get it right at this level.”

As evidence of the growing commitment to help midlevel leaders, organizations are increasing or, at least, maintaining their investment levels at the mid-level. Of the 20 companies we interviewed, 60 percent (12 organizations) are increasing their investment and 15 percent (three organizations) are maintaining their investment.

Mid-level development is evolving to meet specific business needs and to shape organizational cultures.

As the mid-level role continues to change, the approaches organizations take to developing these leaders also are changing. In the study report, we highlight 14 ways in which mid-level development practices are evolving, including the growing prevalence of developmental work assignments outside one’s current job or function, but aligned with the business; more global focus; and an emphasis on individualized development plans for midlevel leaders based on assessment results.

These changes in development practices bring with them significant implications for the learning and development (L&D) groups responsible for leading and implementing mid-level development programs. L&D personnel must be strong business thinkers with solid global acumen, not just functional HR experts. To be seen as a credible voice in critical talent decisions, they need to demonstrate an understanding of talent as it relates to unique business needs—current and future—for different stakeholders.

Organizations are making 70/20/10 add up to success at the mid-level. 

The 70/20/10 model for development—70 percent on-thejob, 20 percent coaching/relationships, and 10 percent formal development programs—is well ingrained in many leading companies. Using the approach as a framework for building leadership development portfolios, many organizations map development opportunities to the model. Some share the model openly and discuss it with managers to help them grasp the variety of development methods and experiences that go well beyond the typical classroom training.

Through our interviews, we learned how leading organizations approach each area of the model and the best practices that allow them to realize the greatest value from related development efforts.

For example, Andrew Fox, Regional Mars University director, Australia and New Zealand, Mars Incorporated, said that his organization’s 70/20/10 approach is wellplanned: “What has had the biggest impact is being able to apply learning on the job and have that real-world application. All of these experiences are followed up with coaching where we are leveraging our senior leaders as mentors across the business. Our application learning includes compulsory, significant, self-directed learning; fieldwork; and e-learning 90 days leading up to attending classroom training. After the classroom experience, coaching continues, and during the 90 days following the program, there are tangible business outcomes required to show that the objectives have been met.”

Many leading companies still find face-to-face learning to be most effective.

As one individual we interviewed put it, “Many still prefer good-quality classroom learning.” For many types of training, such as courses designed to develop behavioral skills, the classroom is a superior option as it offers opportunities for live role-playing and peer-to-peer networking, which is critical for mid-level leaders. This isn’t to suggest, however, that mid-level development remains a low-tech realm. Early adopters use webinars to deliver leadership development sessions, web portals to connect communities online and to facilitate virtual action-learning teams, and blogs to increase participant interaction and to support their efforts to integrate what they are learning between face-to-face sessions.

Assessment centers are viewed as the most impactful assessment option for the mid-level.

From our interviews, we learned that while assessment centers are most prevalent for assessing the development needs of high-potentials, many organizations combine assessment centers with 360s. Said Tasporn Chantree, SVP, people & organizational performance, Siam City Cement Public Company Limited, “The company invests a huge amount in assessment centers, and they are used for all mid-level leaders, whether they are in the general or high-potential population. It is positioned as a critical part of their development. They also have a 360-degree feedback exercise as part of post-assessment to check the progress of their individual development.”

Debbie Logan, director, global talent development, Halliburton, said, “The day-in-the-life assessment simulations which are customized to our Halliburton Leadership Competencies have the greatest impact. The feedback and insights that come out of this type of assessment provide us with an objective and consistent approach to help us analyze our leadership pipeline and make critical talent decisions. Three-sixties are also an invaluable tool when we want to assess someone’s leadership ability in their current role. When used appropriately, both of these types of assessments can be powerful tools for development.”

Assessment and development practices still aren’t integrated.

This finding was the one that was most surprising to us. During our interviews we learned that many organizations still struggle with effectively leveraging assessment to inform targeted development. Why? In addition to grappling with the relatively large size of mid-level leader populations, we suspect they also struggle with the inherent challenges that often accompany integrating assessment and development, such as attaining buy-in and support, having adequate resources, and minimizing distractions.

Not all fall into this category, however. Panasonic Corporation, for one, demonstrates the value of leveraging assessment for development. Like many organizations, it relies on assessment centers to assess its high-potentials. Danny Kalman, director - talent management, said, “In Europe, each country nominates their high-potentials themselves. In the past, we were getting a lot of inconsistencies, so it made sense to have some kind of assessment or view in terms of consistency. We decided a few years ago that all of them would go through a full-day assessment center. And it is only those people who get over a certain score who are put into a high-potential pool. The others go on to create a development plan. The assessment works well for development to help identify strengths and development needs. I feel quite confident we have the right program in place.”

Jennifer Donahue is a marketing manager for DDI’s executive solutions group.

Kris Routch is an executive consultant at DDI.

Nancy Thomas is a senior consultant at the Institute of Executive Development.

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