Are we letting down middle managers?

There’s a reason middle managers are often referred to as ‘permafrost’, a reference to the difficulty in getting through this management layer from the top or bottom: a lack of learning and development.

According to our recent survey, almost half (48 per cent) of Australia and New Zealand’s mid-level managers say the training and development they now receive has decreased compared to the early years of their career.

When we consider that middle managers will one day shape an organisation, driving it through the hard times and helping it prosper in the good, learning and development should be ongoing throughout a person’s entire career.

Professionals agree. In the same survey employees said training and development is the second most important factor for them at work (selected by 78 per cent), behind only work-life balance (85 per cent) and ahead of a manager who cares about their staff (76 per cent). Meanwhile on-the-job learning is considered the most important method of upskilling for 85 per cent, followed by formal training or courses paid by their employer (41 per cent).

This places the onus on employers to ensure their staff continue to develop their skills. But what training and development should be offered? Apart from any technical skills development, it’s important to cultivate a middle manager’s broader knowledge and understanding of the organisation’s goals, foster a belief in what the organisation is trying to achieve and help advance leadership skills.  This is especially important when we consider that middle managers are often focused on delivery and outcomes.

Some ways to do this are to give middle managers opportunities to lead other teams or departments outside their functional skill base for three or six months, participate in team or group projects across the organisation, give them more senior-level projects to manage, join in offsite meetings where middle managers can work on the business rather than in the business and commit to a minimum number of days training per year.

By starting to include middle managers in more senior level business discussions, and allowing them to contribute their ideas, they often experience rapid on-the-job growth. Mentoring is also important, as is the continued development of emotional intelligence and soft skills.

But development won’t be successful without intention, so think about and discuss an employee’s potential future with them, one-on-one, to ensure you’re all on the same page.

Such discussions will also help formulate succession plans. After all, someone at some stage will move on to another job, so it makes sense to determine who could succeed the current incumbent in each management role and then provide the development required to succeed. 

Yet according to our survey, only 40 per cent of employers have a succession plan in place. Of the remainder, 30 per cent say they plan to put one in place in the next 12 months.

With turnover rising, this is becoming an important talent management issue. Ironically, one of the main reasons people look for a new job is for more challenging or exciting work and a lack of career development. Therefore, a succession plan not only develops the skills of potential future leaders but aids in their retention.

For more on succession planning please see this article by our CEO, Alistair Cox, Planning for success? Then you’d better plan for succession

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Comment by Melissa Richardson on Sunday
Thanks for this article which raises an important issue. As a mentoring consultant,I'd like to see much more emphasis on mentoring for middle managers, not just young and early career "talent". Mentoring should not be a privilege reserved for the lucky few. Middle managers can develop and build capacity by being mentees, and by being mentors to others.

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