How well-trained are your Middle Managers?

How well-trained are your Middle Managers?

When it comes to leadership development, many middle managers get left behind. Companies invest in training their new employees to be good employees and they train their executives to be better leaders, but they don’t spend much effort or dollars developing the group that needs it the most.

Often, middle management training is like getting the keys to a stick shift car after driving an automatic for 10 years; they’re left to figure it out on their own. “Here’s the group (or here’s the program) we want you to manage. Now go manage.

For the lucky ones, the move is “automatic.” They slide into this new method of training seamlessly. But for most, in addition to the gentle bumping of curbs and stalling (and maybe some cursing), there are some accidents and some collateral damage. If there is training available, the programs are generic, like “Being an Effective Team Player,” or they focus on improving technical skills instead of improving their people skills, with courses called “Completing a Performance Evaluation.”

We often promote employees into managerial roles because they’re strong technical employees. But, just because they’re good at their jobs doesn’t mean they’ll make good people, area, and/or program managers without some assistance. Frequently, they’re missing some or all of the critical management skills. Forbes has a great article about what they could be missing and how it’s hurting them and the companies they work for.

They don’t know how to talk to employees they’re friends with, but now manage, and may not know how to listen for cues that something is off in their new team. They may know how to assign work and they’ve probably received some training on performing employee evaluations, but how effective are they at ensuring that those who report to them know what they’re being asked to do? Do they know how to create a strong team? Or, for those who manage a program or a process, do they know how to delegate to individuals who don’t report to them? Those managers need strong influencing skills and the ability to pull together a network of employees to accomplish their priorities.


Why are middle managers so important to business success?

This group, which can include everyone from supervisors to program managers, marketing managers, and engineering directors, is the conduit between your executives and your front line employees. Well-trained and well-supported middle managers are critical for companies trying to meet their strategic business goals.

Respected, well-trained managers engage their employees and boost morale, and improved morale boosts retention. (And as you know, it can be expensive and time consuming to hire, fire and rehire.)

They’re the ones working with the front line employees to turn your senior leaders’ vision into reality. They’re far enough removed from the front line to see the bigger picture, but not so far away as to miss the details. Plus, they’re close enough to know where the bottlenecks are and effectively translate the business goals into a reality that the employees understand and that resonates with them. If the middle manager doesn’t have the skills necessary to work productively with their employees, goals aren’t met, progress stalls and organizations don’t grow.


What’s standing in their way?

We’re asking our managers to do more with fewer resources and not giving them the support to manage their work and their people effectively. And we’re often holding them accountable for the success of a project, even if they have no direct organizational authority. And no direct reports. On a daily basis, these managers must overcome a number of critical challenges that they may not be equipped to handle, including:

  • Driving performance in increasingly complex environments;
  • Leading and developing talent; and
  • Making multi-impact decisions.

And without training and support, their stress levels increase. This is the group you need the most, but it’s also the group most at risk of burning out and leaving, as chronic high stress can lead to increased turnover. A 2014 survey by showed that of nearly 7,000 US workers, 35% left a job due to a stressful work environment. (The survey didn’t differentiate between managers and employees.)

Unless you give them the support and development they need to perform at the level you need, turnover in this group can undermine your company’s performance and break the link between strategy and execution that you desperately need to remain successful and profitable.


What needs to change?

According to Harvard Business Publishing’s (HBP) white paper “Danger in the Middle: why Middle Level Managers Aren’t Ready to Lead,” companies need to change the long held tenet that their managers will “figure out how to manage.” Instead, they need to implement appropriate management development programs for all of their managers. Their training programs need to be well-rounded and address those “soft” but critical leadership skills that will help them address their daily challenges. This shift in mindset will provide the critical support the managers need and allow the organization to meet it business goals as the company grows and changes.

Many companies recognize that they need to do a better job on middle management training. An April 2012 HBP survey on emerging trends in leadership development found that only 28 percent of organizations felt their development programs met the needs of their middle managers, and 85 percent felt their company’s leadership pipeline would suffer unless their middle management development programs were strengthened.

Improving your management development at all levels will improve the strength of your leadership bench. You’ll find yourself with more managers who are ready to step into new roles that become available as older employees retire.


Management training is available, but can they get to it?

Your managers can be overworked and overwhelmed, as they spend the majority of their time driving the daily operations of your business. When can they train? It’s great to make these programs available, but in some cases, it’ll take creative scheduling to make them accessible to those who need them the most. Managers should understand that the necessary adjustments will be made for them when they need to attend training. It’ll be tough going for a bit, but, in short order, you should have properly trained, and more effective managers, and back up support will be available to allow larger numbers to participate.

Over time, your middle managers will strengthen the skills they need to lead effectively in your changing and increasingly complex environments. Once at their fullest potential, organizations will see improvements in morale as well as productivity, as managers and those who they oversee (or delegate to) learn to collaborate and work together more effectively.

They’ll learn to pivot more quickly to respond to changing customer needs and desires as well as changes in the marketplace, all of which will allow you to seize upon business opportunities that may not have been possible before. When these managers are at their best, they’ll move up into more senior positions and guide your company to new levels of success and growth.


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