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Leadership continues to be a top priority for most organizations, and nearly nine out of 10 respondents identify the issue as “important” or “very important,” according to Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends report for 2015. But while top executives tend to get a lot of attention, the middle layer of business management is often ignored.

It’s a short-sighted approach, given that today’s middle managers are often tomorrow’s leaders. According to a white paper from Harvard Business Publishing, middle managers are overburdened, undertrained, and often on the verge of burning out just as they’re being considered for more senior leadership roles. No wonder only 15% of North American companies feel they have enough qualified successors in their leadership pipeline.

Unless we make a greater effort to nurture and support our managers more effectively, the leadership crisis will continue to worsen.

Here are four ways to “manage the manager” and help them grow successfully into their future roles.

1. Help managers find their management styles.

Ask most managers, “What is your management style?” and they won’t have a ready answer. The reality is that many managers are promoted to their first business management position because they excelled in their primary role, not because of their managerial skills. As a result, they may have never had an opportunity to explore their management strengths.

There are many types of management styles. Some managers are direct and authoritative. Some are consultative and collaborative. Some focus on people, others on processes, and still others on achievements and goals. While some management styles may be better suited to particular companies or situations, there’s no single “best” approach to management. It’s important to give your middle managers the opportunity to explore different management styles in order to discover which one fits their unique personality and strengths.

2. Support managers with training and development.

Development programs for mid-level managers are one of the best ways to improve managerial performance, but few organizations take advantage of them. In fact, mid-level managers are chronically short-changed in this area. While organizations tend to invest heavily in training for senior executives and new managers, the middle level of management is sparsely supported—a phenomenon called the “barbell approach.” In fact, the Harvard Business Review survey found that more than two-thirds of organizations (67 percent) felt that they needed to entirely revamp their middle manager development programs.

A lack of development is also impacting manager retention. The HBR survey found that 48% of Generation Y professionals (the core demographic for the middle-manager layer) planned to stay at their current job for two years or less. Why? Because they lacked a clear development path and organizational support.

3. Trust and empower; don’t micromanage.

Autocratic leadership is never the best way to inspire managers or get results. You may feel more in control, but your managers will feel scrutinized and undermined. And it’s the most competent and high-performing managers who feel most alienated by an autocratic leadership style. As a result, you’re likely to see your best managers walk out the door.

Instead, equip your managers with clear guidelines and processes so they know how to handle day-to-day situations in a way that reflects the organization’s values and expectations. Then give them your trust and let them take charge, updating you at regular intervals and coming to you for guidance when required.

4. Establish a feedback loop.

While managers are usually evaluated based on their ability to achieve specific outcomes and KPIs, they’re often given little to no feedback on their day-to-day approach to business management. As a result, they may be totally unaware of negative behaviors that are holding them back or affecting team morale.

While middle managers need to demonstrate a high degree of autonomy, they still need input and guidance. When “managing the manager,” check in regularly, observe them at a variety of job tasks, and be quick to provide feedback—especially when it’s positive. Managers should also get 360-degree feedback from the team members who report directly to them. While traditional feedback systems can deliver the required input, peer-recognition software platforms such as Impraise, TapMyBack, and Give a WOW can provide a valuable conduit for immediate and ongoing feedback.

Stronger managers, stronger leaders

Managers are often expected to hit the ground running, but they need the right support, development, and feedback processes in place before they can thrive. By focusing on this vital organizational layer, your company can ensure strong and consistent management today and a strong leadership pipeline for tomorrow.

Does your company have programs in place to help the middle management succeed?


  • Olivia H says:

    All the companies I’ve worked for did not have a development plan for middle management. They had career paths for employees to reach a middle management position, and some had business and behavioral training for the executive roles. It depends on the structure of the company and the desire to progress of the employees.

  • Matthew says:

    We once lost an exceptional employee due to the low chances to advance in the company. He was stuck in a middle management role for some years, and it was difficult for the company to integrate him into senior management. The company that hired him was able to describe his path and how will they invest in him to achieve more since they are always promoting for key roles.

  • Dana R says:

    We have to take into account the company culture and also the employees’ ambition. Middle management positions are generally filled with young people. Some of them want to achieve more in their careers, but I’ve also encountered employees who are happy with their position and don’t want to be promoted simply because they don’t want more responsibilities or a loss of balance in their life.

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