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7 ways to strengthen middle-manager performance

Any strategy is only as successful as its execution, making it essential to engage middle managers as conduits of change to ensure strategy is translated to frontline execution

Words by Prabir Jha

Middle level managers can be a boon or a curse to organisation efficiency. Done right, they provide the strategic depth and critical connect between the top leadership’s strategy with ownership of execution by the teams. Done wrong, they can create a fat and bloated middle in organisations that impair agility and innovation. While part of the issue lies in the architecture design in organisations, often an issue in itself, the other part is about the edge that this middle truly has in terms of competence, skills, and leadership. 

So what can be done to build the capacity of the middle management to deliver the strategic ask?

Reconnect them with the organisational purpose

Most middle management are happy with the routine of their daily tasks. Many even do not know why they do what they do and why they do it that way. Except that is how they always did. There must be a conscious effort to refresh their understanding of their institution’s core purpose. Why does the firm exist? And then connect that with their own reason for existence. This is the least understood, but most crucial component, of why there is boredom, indifference, and even denial within the ranks of these levels. 

Build a sense of value and significance 

Often the middle management feels squeezed from both ends, neither appreciated by the top nor respected enough by the ranks. There is, in many organisations, a sense of cynicism and resignation. Many do not think their careers will progress. But they are such a crucial bridge. They are the face of the company to their teams. And their sense of engagement and diffidence can rub off on their teams. Even before you take steps to build their wherewithal, build in them the belief it is worth it. And that they matter. 

Invest in their learning and competence building

Middle management is often neglected in the learning focus as a segment in many companies. One sees high investment in senior leaders, and plenty in younger recruits. This is a mistake. Depending on the individual, domain skills, and leadership competence must be built in them to keep them agile. Keep them renewed. Rotate their roles. Get them to be mentored by senior managers within the system. Teach them a wider perspective of business, so they appreciate the challenges and implications from a multi-functional perspective. Middle management cannot be a still pond. And those with the best promise feed the senior leadership needs tomorrow. Some will disappoint. But equally, some will be spotted through a well-organised talent development exercise. 

Get them to be corporate teachers

Another great way to keep building the capability of the middle management is to get them involved as internal trainers. Not only is it a great way of enabling transfer of experience, skills, and tacit knowledge, it also pushes them to learn and prepare. This creates curiosity and inquisitiveness. The younger lot will also ask different questions. So it becomes a very powerful virtuous cycle. And it enhances their visibility beyond their teams, enables recognition and finally creates a peer pressure for everyone to learn more.

Expose them to the world beyond

Many a time middle management is so busy with daily chores they lose connect with the world beyond, both within the industry and beyond. In an ever-changing world, they do not even realise how inadequate to the new asks they are becoming. Getting speakers from outside to come and speak with them is a very useful way of opening their minds and keeping their learning agility high. 

Leverage cross-functional project working

Another ramification of middle management behaviour is siloed working, something that drains any enterprise. Every company should be thinking of some cross-functional stretch projects. It not only gets some middle managers out of their comfort zone, but it also helps them learn newer areas. And when they need to stretch, they will need to learn the art of delegation, that is typically under-practised in most companies. This approach also takes away some of the boredom that most middle management jobs typically slip into. 

Digital and on-line courses are a good option for scale

Finally, today edtech offerings abound. They are reasonably priced, trackable, and allow  for cohort learning. This can be a very good option for helping build newer skills and capabilities across chunks of middle management. Test and score options allow for both self assessment and external validation. 

Developing the capability of the middle management is then not as much contingent on opportunities and options as it is on the institutional intent. If the segment indeed must be value multiplying, it should not be bloated. But what you have must be fit for purpose and beyond. It really does not matter what mix of tactics you use. What matters is the strategic view you take of this employee segment. 

Prabir Jha is a distinguished HR strategist and the Founder-CEO of Prabir Jha People Advisory

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