Middle Leadership – New Language For Cultivating Leadership In The Middle

By: Betsy Atkins & Lisa Dallmer 

A company wins the hearts and minds of its employees and customers based on the middle of the organization.  Large by numbers and impact, it drives the day to day of everything in product, customers, support, sales, etc.  The middle deals with the challenges, mistakes, and surprises in the trenches.

As we think about how you forward build an organization to be world class it is important to seize the opportunity to really understand, focus, and measure in a programmatic way the concept of “middle leadership”. It is a well-accepted fact that culture always trumps strategy when it comes to building a world-class global company and that becoming tangled in bureaucratic duties will slow a company down and erode the culture. To help avoid the ill-fate of a stale and slow moving company it is important to forward hire and investment in the middle layer of your organization as it will ultimately determine the fate of your business.

So how do you know when to hire for management skills verses hiring for leadership?  All companies need a mixture of both.  Understanding how these skills are different and when the middle of your organization needs more leadership, rather than just management, is one of the keys for growth.  We commonly use the phrase “middle management” but have you ever heard of “middle leadership”?  Nope.  In part because we tend to reserve the leadership label for senior executive hires.  We argue that a consistent culture of middle leadership is essential to sustain corporate growth.

An organization may have great executive leadership but ultimately it rests on the abilities of the broader organization.  Having leadership at every level is critical to breaking down the organizational silos in the day to day challenges. Without this, corporate growth is slower, with more internal friction and often oblivious to market opportunities.

To fill the missing link in your company between the top leadership team and the middle layer of the organization you must reassess the hiring practices at your company. Evaluate what policies are in place when it comes to the intake of new employees and start to think about it in a specific, measurable way with the goal of capturing the leadership abilities and attributes of new middle layer hires.

What types of interview questions should the company add to their HR recruiting strategies? Consider incorporating leadership aptitude tests to help ensure that new hires have the potential to help bridge the gap between management and leadership to breakdown the silos. A bureaucratic, slow moving culture is one of the most crippling afflictions a company can suffer from. Middle Leadership has the opportunity to spot failed communications between teams, missed handoffs in the customer experience, and bring forward new products.  Identifying the attributes and skills for middle management to pivot on for leadership minded problem solving is a key component for building a company culture that thrives and is future proof.

One of the key roles of the board is to set the “tone at the top” and to look at how the culture is actually impacting the organization; some of the things that the board can specifically look at as part of an ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) framework is looking at their organizational development. How are they forward building their middle management? What programs are available to grow middle managers from doers to leaders? It is well worth a company’s time and resources to commit to creating a dedicated set of programs that actually teach measurable and buildable leadership skills; this will be foundational to having a strong middle layer vs. one that is bureaucratic and unresponsive.

Great middle leaders see opportunities in the friction and self-initiate to fix it.  Middle managers are working the plan, reporting and explaining.  This is valuable but it alone won’t carry your culture and company forward. It is important to align your middle leadership layer to the company’s overall purpose and mission to be sure that your vision is being carried out across all levels.

Leaders are dealing with the unknown, are willing to admit they don’t have all the answers and seek input from others to understand the important not-so-obvious trends.  These skills are needed not only at the top of the organization but also in the everyday interactions at the widest parts of our organizations.

Great Middle Leaders motivate not only their team but others around them too. This is done by communicating purpose, thinking broadly to get out of the organizational silos, and behaving inclusively.  Hiring for middle leadership is smart and motivates others, in part, because leaders invest in people.  Good companies might have both managers and leaders by chance. But great companies deliberately build a culture of Middle Leaders.

Betsy Atkins is CEO and founder of Baja Corporation and author of Be Board Ready. She currently sits on the boards of Wynn Resorts, SL Green Realty, Schneider Electric, and Volvo Cars.

Lisa Dallmer is an experienced Chief Operating Officer in financial services and technology.  Currently SVP of Business operations at Delphix, previously she was COO of BlackRock’s Global Technology & Operations and COO for NYSE Euronext.

— Published on July 25, 2019

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