How to Retain Middle Management and Grow Their Skills

14 Nov 2022

How to Retain Middle Management and Grow Their Skills

As economic instability continues, organizations will need to lean on leaders across all levels to maintain stability, profitability, and institutional knowledge.

Employee retention is a hot topic for 2023.

As economic instability continues, organizations will need to lean on leaders across all levels to maintain stability, profitability, and institutional knowledge.

In a Fall 2022 report from Slack’s Future Forum, 10,677 survey respondents from the global workforce reported an increase in burnout; it rose 8% from May to August 2022. Among US workers, the numbers were quite drastic. Burnout rose to 47%.

Two of every five US respondents said they were burnt out, and the highest number of those respondents were middle managers.

These numbers should provide a wake-up call because, as you’ll see below, middle managers play a vital role in any organization.

In our article, we discuss the following:

  • Importance of retaining middle managers
  • Why the middle manager role is so stressful
  • Skills middle managers need to be successful
  • Leadership development opportunities your organization needs to provide, especially if it plans to promote internal hires

Why is it important to develop and retain middle managers?

Middle managers are your connecting leaders.

They often serve as:

  • Liaisons between supervised employees and leadership overseeing the flow of ideas, strategy, and progress within and across an organization
  • Change agents who drive employee initiatives and build organizational culture
  • Team builders also heavily involved in the hiring process
  • Keepers of detail-oriented, institutional knowledge
Middle managers know what motivates their team. They help people answer, “Why do I matter to the company?” and help them see how their role fits within the overall vision.

A very savvy manager is the one who knows your employees best and has the most impact on their experience with the company. You often hear the saying, “Employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers,” but the inverse is also true. When a strong middle manager leaves an organization, some of their direct employees tend to follow, and your talent losses increase even further.

Why is middle management so stressful?

Middle management often operates on the front lines of organizational change, which demands a taxing balance of rigor and flexibility. They’re the ones who are tasked with handling more of the honest, direct conversations that happen in work environments.

For example, during COVID-19, middle managers were responsible for helping others adjust to remote work environments. And when companies chose to institute return-to-office policies, it was middle managers who had to work through the details of employees’ schedules.

In a recent Return-to-Office Survey* conducted by Odgers Berndtson US, 41% of respondents wanted to retain the option of a hybrid work environment as opposed to fully remote work or in-office. Imagine you’re a middle manager who knows hybrid work is popular among employees, but leadership has decided it wants everyone in-office full time, and now you must deliver the news.

Middle managers are the ones who implement policies, even if those policies are unpopular with employees, while they continue to remain the primary motivators for their teams.

To add an additional level of pressure, while middle managers are often the ones you call upon during a crisis, they still have to think about new strategic initiatives and big picture perspectives—even if there’s not enough time to do so.

Lack of leadership development

Internal hires often seem like a no-brainer. Your organization retains that employee’s loyalty and commitment and the knowledge about systems, process, and customers that is important to success. You’ve rewarded your employee and shown the rest of the company potential career paths; if people work hard and meet expectations, you will provide possibilities.

And yet, so often, internal hires who take on new roles struggle with the responsibilities then leave.

Individual contributors, particularly at the middle management level, will excel and get promoted, but their targeted skillset still remains that of an individual contributor. They need to learn to move away from the trigger response of a “fix it” mindset and learn how to delegate and promote team accountability. However, they’re often not provided with the development and training they need.

When middle managers are promoted without training, they’re being set up to fail, at which point your organization loses both the leadership role and the individual contributor skills you initially valued.

What makes a middle level manager successful?

Some important skills for successful middle managers are:

  • Ability to resolve conflict
  • Capacity to embody company values and model behaviors consistent with those values
  • Power to adapt and provide agile coaching skills

Resolve conflict

A middle manager needs to handle, address, and transform conflict.

They can take a conflict and translate it into a productive discussion about individual and team growth.

It’s important to note how middle managers set the tone for these types of conversations. If they remain calm and present the ideas as part of a development discussion, then the feedback generally will be received in the same way.

Embody organizational values and reinforce positive behaviors

Middle managers must possess a deep understanding of your organization’s values and choose to embody behaviors clearly linked to those values. A leader who can translate values into expected behaviors helps develop and build your organization’s culture.

Middle managers oversee the behaviors that get rewarded, so it’s important they’re able to reinforce those behaviors both with their own actions and among their teams.

Agility and coaching skills

The art and science of putting together an effective team is complex. Middle managers must develop alternative options, understand and meet metrics, and even identify new key performance indicators (KPIs) as teams change and grow.

Leadership agility is key to middle manager success.

A huge part of that flexibility is knowing how to coach and develop the team’s capabilities to bring out the best attributes and efficiency.

Keep in mind, there’s a big difference between mentors and coaches. Mentors do a lot of talking and teaching; they relay their own experiences and make suggestions. Coaching is about listening and asking questions.

How do you motivate a middle manager?

Middle managers need to be sold on the culture and vision of your organization. As stated above, people believe in actions. When your middle managers are going to model organizational behaviors and values, it’s critical to win over their hearts and minds, and keep them motivated.

To do so, your company should provide:

  • Purpose and guidance
  • Pathways to promotions
  • Training opportunities
  • Mentorship

Provide purpose

People are motivated by purpose, particularly the younger generation. In a 2021 Deloitte survey, out of 8,273 Gen Z respondents, 49% said they chose their careers and employment based on their personal ethics.

Motivation isn’t solely about career advancement; people want to feel like they’re adding value, meaning, and purpose within the company and beyond. They want to feel proud of their work.

Your company communications, both internal and external, need to be consistent and highlight the impact your organization is making.

Identify individual drives and goals

Motivation is different for each individual.

Some might be driven by a promotion, while others want to avoid boredom; they fear growing stale in their career. They want to be innovators as opposed to overseers.

Take opportunities during scheduled check-ins, quarterly assessments, and year-end reviews to ask your middle managers about the vision for their careers and how that vision fits within both their current roles and potential future roles.

Whether they’re striving for career advancement, or they want to expand their skillset, help them define what drives their passions and their individual goals, so your organization can create opportunities and projects to keep them interested and engaged in their work.

Develop multiple mentor relationships

Many organizations see the value in dedicated mentorship programs, but it’s important to remember that people can have many mentors who will help them with various aspects of their career.

Encourage your middle managers to establish and build different relationships and get multiple sources of input.

How do you progress your middle management?

Helping middle managers progress their career path involves three key factors:

  • Early identification
  • Thorough assessment
  • Continued training and leadership development

Early identification

As you’re working with middle management and attempting to identify those who could grow into even greater leadership roles, it’s important to establish your criteria and competency model.

A common challenge for organizations is identifying leadership potential early enough in an individual’s career path. Often by the time they’ve been identified, it’s too late to ensure they get enough diverse experience to fulfill those leadership qualifications.

Thorough assessment

Assessment still needs to be viewed as an internal employee investment. The hiring rigor of qualifications needs to be applied equally to all promotions. If you want to retain the majority of your employees, it goes without saying that you need to treat people fairly and consistently.

When you’re assessing internal employees for a role, make sure to communicate that you’re using the exact same standards as you would for external employees. Give every internal candidate feedback throughout the process, especially if they aren’t chosen for the position.

Use the assessment process as an additional development tool, so you can build upon that feedback and provide the resources or a coach to help your internal hire candidates continue to develop.

Continued training and leadership development

When internal hires are promoted, they’re already embedded within the organization’s DNA. There tends to be an expectation they will hit the ground running when you might give more leeway to an external hire. But as we noted earlier, that can be a weird mirage of success; it becomes very easy to fail under the burden of presupposed expectations. What made an internal hire successful in their previous role will be different from the KPIs of their new role.

Give your internal hires the same grace period you would extend to external hires:

  • Provide formal onboarding. A deliberate onboarding process formalizes the need for new behaviors; too often, it’s perceived as training that’s only necessary for external hires. Remember your internal hires need it as well.
  • Undergo the exercise of stakeholder mapping, so they understand their potential impact and influence. Don’t assume they will already know based off their previous position.
  • Conduct a formal listening tour, even if they’re already familiar with stakeholders and staff. This gives everyone a chance to get to know them in their new position and allows more freedom to ask questions and collect data.
  • Check on their calendar. Make sure they’ve set up regular meetings with peers and quarterly meetings with stakeholders.
  • Ask what they need and what leadership could be doing better.

Leadership also has to ensure the proper amount of focus is being put on strategic change and initiatives. If you want to create a coaching culture where there’s mutual team accountability, you need to create processes to support that philosophy.

Next steps

Below are some questions to consider as you reexamine your current leadership development program:

How Odgers can help

At the end of the day, retaining your employees through leadership development is good risk management. You want to develop a deep bench of leaders that your organization can use to propel its growth and ultimately plot its succession plan. If you have any questions about retaining and promoting middle management, leadership development, or our LeaderFit Assessment Suite, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Gary Payne is a Partner in Odgers Berndtson’s Houston office; he is the US leader of the firm’s Construction Practice and serves as an executive coach for C-Suite leaders as head of the Coaching Practice specializing in CEO, CFO, and COO search work. With a combined 30 years of experience as a sitting CEO, P&L leader, executive coach, and search consultant, Gary brings unique, strategic insight to the recruitment and development of senior leaders. He can be reached at (713) 470-0966 or gary.payne@odgersberndtson.com.

Robert C. Satterwhite, PhD leads the Odgers Berndtson US Leadership Advisory Practice and works in the firm’s New York office. He helps organizations strategically manage executive selection, succession, and development with a focus on executive and leadership team assessment, coaching, and onboarding. He has extensive expertise across a range of industries including: retail, manufacturing, financial services, private equity, insurance, pharmaceutical, hospitality, and federal agencies. Robert can be reached at (203) 817-7522 or robert.satterwhite@odgersberndtson.com.

Ann C. Wheeler, PhD is a Principal in Odgers Berndtson’s Leadership Advisory Practice. Her work focuses on assessments for executive selection and development, as well as executive coaching, succession planning, executive integration, and organizational change implementation. Ann has spent over 20 years working with executives and senior managers across national and multinational organizations including: Department of Defense contractors, aerospace manufacturers, chemical manufacturers, energy companies, public utilities, and nuclear and fossil generation facilities. She can be reached at (832) 287-6488 or ann.wheeler@odgersberndtson.com.