Why middle management needs a rebrand

Being caught between junior and senior levels should be seen as a destination, not a dead end, says Zara Whysall

The rise of flatter organisations has seen the all-important middle become increasingly neglected. Research by Grovo shows 38 per cent of UK directors believe their organisation is "paralysed" by ineffective middle management, and 40 per cent identified it as the single greatest barrier to achieving company objectives.

Why are organisations failing to maximise this valuable layer of contribution and opportunity? Increasingly, employees expect meaningful and well-managed work, regular two-way communication, opportunities to develop on the job, and clear visibility of potential career paths, to name but a few desirables.

From the organisational side, effective middle management is key to successful implementation of change and realisation of strategic objectives. Given their critical role in making all of this happen, how do we transform the middle into a desirable career destination in itself, as opposed to a stopping point on the way to somewhere else – or worse, a dead end where people get stuck?

What is the middle, anyway?

This catch-all, sometimes loaded, title tends to be defined by structure. It’s typically two levels below the CEO and one above first-line supervisor. Ultimately, middle managers are responsible for translating and implementing organisational strategy, and ensuring that the broader workforce is capable of delivering it. Yet, the reality is often that middle managers aren’t equipped with the skills or resources to achieve this: 98 per cent of managers believe managers at their company need more training.

Despite their role in organisational effectiveness and performance, middle managers are often overlooked in terms of talent development, and are often not even considered ‘talent’. Caught between the ‘top talent’ and ‘rising stars’, they’re at risk of being left behind.

Time for a rebrand

Our research into middle management shows a strong requirement to reignite this layer of potential. It requires a shift in mindset and skill set – away from perceptions of middle management as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else, and towards middle management as a skilled craft, not a dead end. HR in particular needs to support the middle to fulfil their potential to be key enablers of organisational performance, setting the ball rolling on the middle management rebrand.

So as an HR leader, how can you work towards transforming the position of the middle and empower managers with a long-overdue rebrand? 

Understand why they’re there

Understand why middle managers are there and what they want from their careers. Are they there as a stepping stone or a destination? Is it choice or through lack of skills or opportunity to progress? If they want to progress further, work out what the options are. 

Communicate possible pathways open to them

Ensure your managers know where current and future investment is. Provide resources to support better line management conversations and support mobility along different career pathways. At the same time, share succession requirements and provide clarity about what’s needed to move to the next level. 

Open up lateral opportunities

Opportunities can be created through rotations and secondments to widen managers’ experience. A key to rebranding the middle is recognising management excellence as a distinct pathway in its own right.

Empower your managers

Empowerment is the most effective way to reboot middle management as a centre of authority and management excellence, supporting them to enable others. Give your managers the resources they need to effectively manage performance, to have career conversations with their team, to promote talent mobility and development, and translate plans into action.

Zara Whysall is head of research at Kiddy & Partners