· 3 min read · Features

Let’s hear it for middle management


In today’s business world, middle managers have never been more important. They are essential for delivering business performance while engaging, leading and developing talent from within.

But due to the turbulent economic climate, middle managers are under increasing amounts of pressure as they are challenged to make more bottom-line decisions that impact on cost, quality and efficiencies. At this difficult time, organisations need to sit up and recognise the important role they play and more effectively support their professional development, so they are better equipped to drive business productivity.

DDI research last year revealed more than half the population of mid-level managers report that the biggest change to their role, as a result of the economic crisis, has been 'more responsibilities but no new title'. Consequently, loyalty to companies among the group is at a record low.

This is illustrated by the fact that 64% of middle managers report that they are not likely to be with their company two years from now. One of the big challenges for mid-level managers is adapting to a period of change with tighter budgets and often a lower staff headcount. Some 21% state that leading change in the workplace is their most pressing challenge. In addition, executing work priorities and making tough decisions are considered big challenges now and over the next two years.

But just 11% report feeling well prepared to tackle these challenges. In addition to difficult market conditions, mid-level leaders increasingly have to adapt to longer working days, and increasing expectations to be available out of hours, to take calls and check emails. Evolving technology has also impacted on the reporting structure of the corporate world, as more junior staff can communicate and report directly to senior management.

This has prompted many executives to cut out or reduce middle management jobs to help reduce costs during the downturn. Charged with executing strategic goals at an operational level, middle managers often have the widest range of responsibilities, and are critical in ensuring that business plans are delivered. Their responsibility is not only to set direction, but also the tone of how things get done. In times of difficulty, the middle manager has an important role in creating a positive culture by encouraging staff to work better together.

Despite this, mid-level managers are missing out when it comes to training and development solutions that would help support them effectively in their roles. Available training is often not differentiated from other leadership levels and designed with their own unique learning needs in mind. Many managers have never received formal training on how to manage, coach and delegate to employees and are expected to master these skills ‘on the job’, with little support.

In 2010, DHL launched a training programme for middle managers. ’The Leadership Enrichment Programme’ was specially devised to meet the needs of functional middle managers, operational general managers and shift/operations managers. The programme was designed to help managers develop consistent and positive leadership skills to better assist them in making critical and practical changes. Delivered through two sets of three-day workshops, the programme aims to enhance middle managers’ performance within their current job role and to raise performance standards, as well as confidence, within this critical management population.

The focus and aim of the programme is to stretch and build on delegates’ existing knowledge. The first module seeks to help mid-level managers build self-awareness and understand the importance of their role, as well as learn how to manage and lead change in the workplace – already noted as being one of the greatest challenges. The second module of the programme provides tools to help middle managers enhance their leadership skills, with hands-on interaction, role-play and group exercises. This section of the programme introduces participants to sample leadership challenges, helping them to learn how to influence more effectively and develop strong briefing and presentation skills.

DHL Supply Chain regards investment and effective engagement with middle management as vital. The business strategy is to maintain and build on its number one market position and by investing in this hugely significant population; everyday performance will not only improve, but also increase the distance with competitors, we believe.

Raising performance standards and confidence among middle managers will take time, investment and commitment from the business. However, it is a two-way process and companies need to get better at listening to their managers to ensure they are effectively meeting their needs and being equipped with the necessary tools to successfully navigate their way through these challenging economic times.

Fiona Light is DHL Supply Chain's head of learning UK & Ireland