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Develop your middle managers

Published on Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Marc Burrage

According to Thomas Colligan, vice-dean and director of the Aresty Institute of Executive Education, at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, when people come in the door, 20 per cent will make partner no matter what you do, 20 per cent will not make partner no matter what you do, and 60 per cent will make partner if you do the right things¹.

Of course, he was referring to law firms and investment banks but the statement can be just as relevant to the rest of the business world. There will be those high performers who will succeed in stepping into leadership roles and there will be those who won’t. But providing the right tools for the remaining 60 per cent can help you future-proof your organisation and fight the war for talent by building a talented workforce capable of handling future workflow. This will ensure you have the skills your business needs for success. So how do you develop middle management to the next level?

The first step is to identify and track development needs. Sit down with your middle managers individually to discuss and agree their career development and a clear path for achieving it. Clearly set your expectations for their pathway to a senior management role, and make sure you have a process in place to review and track their development.

Such conversations also allow both sides to provide honest feedback. Along with performance appraisals and formal and informal discussions, you can also use feedback from colleagues and customers to track and review development needs.

It is also advisable to understand what motivates your middle managers. For example, one employee may be motivated by a fast-tracked development programme to senior management, but a less ambitious middle manager could be encouraged to take on different responsibilities.

Identify the most suitable training. Set clear objectives so that everyone can be involved in measuring the effectiveness. But remember, training doesn’t always have to be in the classroom. Coaching can be directed to many different scenarios and since it is usually one-on-one, it is typically very effective.

Another common development strategy is the use of mentorships. Provided you have appropriate senior-management mentors within your organisation, mentorships allow development to be tailored to your organisation’s needs. Given the informal nature of information exchange and the relationship-basis of mentoring, partnering a senior-management mentor with a middle manager also allows an organisation to retain such knowledge as lessons that have been previously learned, right through to implicit awareness.

You can also consider involvement in projects that will develop skills required for senior management, and expand experience into other products or departments. In addition, potential senior managers should already be working towards safeguarding the company for the long-term, engaging with a variety of stakeholders across the business and working closely with both senior business leaders and staff at the “coal-face”.

Our final suggestion is to ensure your middle management’s soft skills develop as well as their hard skills. Soft skills include strong people and communication skills, such as being able to work efficiently as part of a team, build relationships and present to clients and senior management. Your middle managers also need team management and leadership skills, organisational skills in order to make the greatest possible contribution to the business and a high degree of self-motivation and drive.

Finally, do not overlook the development of their language skills. In our global economy, English has become the lingua franca for business. For those whose first language is English, being able to speak a second or third language with any ability is prized, particularly among senior managers.

Marc Burrage is regional director of Hays in Hong Kong. Hays is Hong Kong’s leading recruiting experts in qualified, professional and skilled people

¹‘Caught in the Middle: Why Developing and Retaining Middle Managers Can Be So Challenging’, Knowledge at Wharton, viewed April 2012, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1968

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