Switched On Leadership: Developing Leadership at the mid-level

Switch on Leadership Series

short leap

This is the first of a five part series entitled Switched On Leadership that is focusing on different levels of leadership within organisations. Today we are looking at the mid-level. This is a complicated group to categorise because the mid-level can range from inexperienced first-time managers to senior mid-level leaders who are one-step away from a functional/executive leadership role.

The mid-level population is sizeable. A 2012 Wall Street Journal article, Why Middle Managers Matter reports that there are 10.8 million middle managers working in the United States. A 2013 BBC News Magazine article, Are There Too Many Managers? puts the figure at five million managers in the United Kingdom. The global mid-level career population makes up roughly 14% of the organisation (this is based on the Boston Consulting Group 2010 survey, Creating a New Deal for Middle Managers: Empowering a Neglected but Critical Group which calculates that an average size company of circa 50,000 employees will have 50-200 senior executives, 7000 mid-level employees and more or less 43,000 individual contributors).

Although decreasing in numbers due to technological advance and organisational restructuring, mid-level employees who are one or two steps away from a functional/executive leadership role are significant and this is not even taking into account the entire emerging leader population which would include high potential graduates and ambitious front-line leaders with their eye on a functional leadership role.

Based on many years of working and developing leadership at the mid-level, I have made some observations about this population which I present here as a general profile:

they tend to be graduates (although not always) and have had some experience in self-directional learning at university, college or on professional courses

they have gained sufficient respect and sponsorship to reach mid-level but they are not guaranteed to be sponsored going forward into functional/executive leadership roles

they have a varied and differing preparatory experience and training in leadership development. Most will not have directly experienced formal leadership “training”; and if they have, it would probably have been a classroom “training wheel” experience

they are mostly in their mid-thirties (although not always) placing them roughly in the early generation Y bracket who have only known and experienced the modern digital workplace

they have grown up in the electronic revolution and are sophisticated users of all forms of electronic communication including social media and networking sites

they are highly mobile and expect to job hop between a number of different organisations in their careers. The 2014 employee tenure summary from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average US worker stays with an employer on average for 4.6 years and certainly does not have the “job for life” mentality of their baby boomer parents.

they are comfortable about making their own way and choices

they are the group most likely to be cut back in times of recession and organisational restructuring initiatives

they tend to have multiple workplace personalities where they constantly find themselves playing different roles, switching between individual contributor, administrator, manager and team leader

The mid-level is historically not well served within organisations (who have tended in the past to focus their resources on developing in-situ senior leaders). Yet, as baby boomers are retiring, opportunities for mid-level are emerging. The recent Hays 2013 BCL survey specifically highlighted that best companies for leaders are focusing more on developing their mid-level; and yet a contemporaneous Harvard Business Global Survey (2013), Danger in the Middle: Why middle managers aren’t ready to lead highlights that only 28% of the organisations surveyed felt that their mid-level leadership programmes were effective.

Given the size, profile, opportunities and variance in experience and training of this group, a strategy for developing mid-level leadership can be challenging and organisations struggle to develop leaders at this level. The key to developing leaders at this level given their complex profile is in promoting self-directional leadership and focusing on practical and supported early leadership opportunities and interventions that go beyond programmatic one-week “training wheels”

Specifically this means:-

Exposing the emerging leader to some standard behavioural leadership tools which will include building self-awareness, enabling/delivering through others and cultivating adaptive capacity. This could be achieved in a classroom setting or through an approved set of self-learning resources

Educating line managers on how they can create leadership interventions and opportunities (leading small project teams, shadowing leaders, observing leadership team meetings etc.) for the emerging leaders in their team

Developing line management motivation and skills in supporting and coaching emerging leaders

Creating a network of mentors who can support and supplement the line manager in the development of the emerging leader

Creating an emerging leader peer coaching network

This is a vital population that cannot be ignored or dumped in one-off leadership training programmes. These emerging leaders need to be mentally and skilfully prepared for leadership at both the individual and the structural (line and organisational) level. That takes time and dedication but will allow organisations in the future to tap into a highly motivated, skilled and engaged in-house developed talent pool ready to take the crucial step toward a functional/executive leadership level.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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Keep an eye out for the next article in this series…
The Switched on Leadership Series will be covering millennials, front-line leaders, mid-level and functional/executive leadership.