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It is time to invest in the tier of managers that has been forgotten: middle managers

Ray Carvey , 10 Apr 2013

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Investment in the top – namely senior executives and high potentials – has for a long time been the main focus for leadership development.

Especially in recent years, tough economic conditions have meant most companies have invested in these top players while overlooking the larger management population in the middle.

This has exacted a heavy price in terms of underperforming and demoralised who lack the networking, planning and team-building skills necessary to excel in today's business environment. It is high time to invest in the tier of managers that has been largely forgotten: middle managers.

We expect more of leaders today than ever before. Flatter organisations and lean budgets require leaders to do more with less, often with minimal guidance and limited experience. Decisions are being pushed down and expectations are high. The rapid pace and global nature of business requires managers to respond quickly to changing market conditions, to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and to drive strong performance in a challenging economy.

Middle managers play a critical role in the ultimate ability of a company to achieve its strategic goals. Project managers, operations managers and engineering directors – these mid-level managers are held responsible for the success of a project, even if they have no direct organisational authority. They are being asked to influence partners and motivate complex networks of global resources to get results.

Without proper training and support, managers are not in an enviable position. This sets up two dangers: First, managers will not be prepared for what lies ahead and won't be ready to step into more senior leadership roles and second, and even worse, they may get frustrated and leave your organisation.

Investing in the development of these managers can turn the tide. It can lead to companies pushing decision making down, becoming more nimble and innovative. The challenge is in how.

Traditional classroom learning approaches have limited effectiveness. In a 2012 Harvard Business Review global survey of managers and leaders, 67% said their organisation needed to entirely revamp their its middle manager development programmes.

The most successful programmes help managers develop the mindset, self-awareness and leadership behaviours required to advance, along with knowledge and skills. We need to equip managers to become fully integrated people leaders who can manage themselves, their broad network, and their teams. Our latest research shows successful leader development requires the blending of experiential on-the-job learning, coaching and feedback with formal training. And the best approach keeps the learning as close as possible to a manager's day-to-day work.

Companies have to evolve their leadership development approach to create rich meaningful learning opportunities to build leadership capability at all levels. Your organisation's success tomorrow depends on growing your talent 'beyond the top' today.

Ray Carvey is executive vice president of corporate learning and international for Harvard Business Publishing

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