Leadership development for middle managers

At Henley, in common with many business schools, we focus on a distributed leadership model – encouraging the development of leadership capability at every level of an organisation, with an emphasis on ‘leaders developing leaders’.

I have many conversations with corporate clients who understand that employee engagement begins truly at line or middle management level; and these individual perceptions have been borne out by Henley’s recent Corporate Learning Priorities survey, which revealed that leadership development, of both the senior and middle management teams, is by far the most important learning and development priority for 2010.

Interestingly, leadership development for middle management seems to have the edge with 67% of HR professionals surveyed naming it as a priority, rating it first or second on their list. This compared to just 35% of those rating leadership development for senior managers as their priority. This finding is supported by the fact that 72% of respondents also chose ‘developing high potentials’ as one of their priorities for next year – people who may be expected to become leaders in the future.

Often much maligned, middle managers find themselves in the unenviable position of having to be both strategic and operational; task and people focused; having to implement and explain decisions that may not be fully intelligible to those that report to them.

Middle managers are often called organisational ‘blockers’ – people who are deliberately trying to protect the status quo and thus stopping an organisation from moving forward. This is rarely true or fair. However, simplistically put, acting as the conduit between the ‘strategic thinkers’ and the ‘doers’ within an organisation is a challenging place to be, especially as organisations stabilise and regroup after the upheavals of the recession.

The more middle managers feel equipped, respected and appreciated, the more they will be able to help organisations create bright, new futures. About 60% of executives on Henley’s Leadership Programme observe that it has helped them recognise the importance of their relationships with other people at work, both in terms of getting tasks done and in terms of their creativity, ability to share their workloads, improve communication, be more self-aware, and generally making work more interesting and enjoyable, and hence more engaging for all concerned.

Middle managers are the lynchpin to successful employee engagement. Separate research by the HR Centre for Excellence at Henley spells out the three things that make a line manager effective at engaging – and leading – their staff:

1) They focus on the individual

  • Takes a genuine and active interest in me and my development
  • Knows me as an individual
  • Values my opinion, seeks my views and recognises my contribution.

2) They have an empowering managerial style

  • Gives direction but allows me to get on with the job
  • Gives me the bigger picture and context to the job
  • Gives me support and guidance
  • Is approachable, available and open: willing to share thoughts and feelings
  • Regular meetings and contact, both formal and informal
  • Gives ongoing, constructive, open, direct and timely feedback
  • Gives me exposure and connects me to the rest of the organisation
  • Adapts their style to my needs and those of different individuals.

3) They are honest, authentic and competent, which drives high levels of trust

  • Words and behaviours match
  • Is good at job and has organisational respect.

Some of these skills and behaviours are innate – but rarely all of them. However, they can be learned. Investing in middle manager development is an investment in the long-term levels of employee engagement within the whole organisation – and the resulting high levels of discretionary effort and high productivity that creates. And this is one of those times in the economic cycle where engagement is at a premium.

Linda Irwin, executive director, corporate development, Henley Business School

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