The challenges that middle managers face are immense — at once they’re charged with overseeing the daily grind while ensuring that all top level directives are met. All this while often receiving little in the way of support or adequate leadership development opportunities. The reason for this lack of adequate support for middle managers cannot simply be put on the shoulders of executives. Rather, this is the result of a lack in sustainable, scalable leadership development programs. After examining the best practices at progressive organizations we’ve discovered that the solution is to focus on the “little things” that make the biggest impact.
The situation for middle managers
To understand what must be done we need to understand middle managers’ position. Given that they hold a unique and often under-examined place in organizations. So, let’s take a moment to consider the plight most middle managers find themselves thrown into.
Middle managers are often the result of internal promotions. They’re people who are diligent, reliable, and possess a great degree of technical skill. In other words, these prospective managers are great workers, but the likelihood is that they’ve had very little experience actually leading teams or concerning themselves with work beyond their own.
So, the fortunate and proficient employee has been given a promotion. Perhaps they’ve had a week of leadership workshops, but after this they’re set out to either sink or swim in their new roles. The inspiration and lessons learned are quickly forgotten to focus on simply keeping their head above water.
As if this isn’t bad enough, recent years have brought an increasing set of challenges for middle managers. Aside from dealing with the pace of disruption and emerging competition, the labor market has continued to tighten. For the foreseeable future retention will continue to be a major challenge for middle managers to face.
Work is becoming less and less about repetitive tasks or simply doing your job and going home. Today, remaining competitive requires an immense amount of creativity and agility. Organizations must do their best to retain their best talent to stay on top of this. Middle managers must learn to connect and inspire the this talent to increase retention, because, as a Gallup poll showed, 70% of attrition has to do with manager-worker relationships.
What leadership development needs to address
As I briefly explained above, leadership development for middle managers is usually limited to a few workshops and maybe a motivational speaker. Strategies that are great in the short term, but inevitably wane if there isn’t proper follow up.
This is a system that has been in place for decades — despite the radical changes that have taken place in the workplace and the evolving needs of leadership. Leadership development today is beginning to show its age and inability to prepare middle managers for a new marketplace.
It used to be that leadership development was primarily to prepare manager thats oversaw lifetime employees content with their 9-5 until they retired. Inspiring a sense of purpose and mission were nice things to have to increase productivity, but they weren’t essential to retention the way they are now. Leadership development was good to have, but it wasn’t as necessary as it is today.
Given this, it was primarily top level executives who received the most leadership development. It made a lot of sense then, but it does not make sense now. While the old model of work still remains here and there it is far past its prime and is quickly being taken over by disruptors.
Today, with the labor market as tight as it is, top talent has more freedom than ever to leave your organization at any time. On top of this, with new technologies, there are plenty of ways for your most talented employees to find work elsewhere.
It’s not simply a matter of money either. With the professional opportunities available today, people no longer just want a stable source of income — they want a position that offers purpose beyond profit. This means that they want the organizations they work for to have stated purpose and sense of direction. Leadership development has to be focused on delivering this and on the skills needed to elevate relationships.
The “little things” are the solution
So, how is leadership development changing to address the increasing needs middle managers have for guidance and best practices? Well, it has begun to focus on elevating human connections and relationships. At ProHabits, we’ve discovered that the best way to elevate human connections and maximize potential is by leveraging the “little things.” That is, little actions taking only a few moments that make a big impact on you those around you.
We’ve come to uncover the best of these little actions from the many discussions we’ve had with leaders at progressive organizations. Things like “recognizing outstanding work in the moment” and having “genuine conversation with your direct reports” are among the ideas we’ve received from these discussions.
All leadership development programs for today need to focus on these little things. Even when leaders feel bogged down in their workloads, these little actions remain vital for effective leadership. What we found most amazing to hear from leaders at organizations is that when they focus on little actions far from feeling they’re just another thing to do they actually help their day along and bring everything into a more positive light.
At ProHabits, we call these little things “MicroActions” and we’ve built a platform to help organizations bring them to scale. By utilizing our platform organizations have found that positive actions have a way of cascading throughout their teams and break down barriers.