Mid-level leaders are key members of an organization. Often managers or directors who lead individual contributors or other managers, mid-level leaders “stand at a critical crossroads,” according to Louise Axon, director of content strategy and development at Harvard Business Publishing. Especially as change happens so frequently and workforces become more dispersed, mid-level leaders are the people who hold the organization’s strategy together.
As a result, they must be able to communicate and collaborate across functions, business units and levels of leadership as well as inside and outside the organization. This includes managing up as well as down and, according to Kenny Sturgeon, senior consultant at Impact International, “leading through influence” to peers on project teams.
“What makes mid-level leadership development so unique,” says Sturgeon, “is the frequency and volume at which a mid-level leader may find themselves applying the full range of leadership skills that they have in their toolkit.” They must complete detail-oriented tasks, think strategically, make personnel decisions, coach employees, and provide leadership in “emergencies” with projects, customers or suppliers.
There are special considerations, therefore, in developing training programs for these leaders. Here are some tips to help your mid-level leaders succeed.
Training Mid-Level Leaders
Axon recommends that mid-level leadership training help participants develop skills in seven key areas:
- Developing a broad, enterprise-wide view of the organization
- Agility, including the ability to quickly adjust priorities as the organization’s needs change
- Fostering learning and innovation throughout their team or department
- Being able to shape strategy and communicate it to everyone they manage and work with
- Resilience and adaptability, including being able to “find opportunity in disruption”
- Understanding and working in “a complex web of relationships”
- Being able to consider business needs and identify development opportunities within and beyond their teams
Mid-level leaders, Axon says, should understand “that attracting, developing and retaining talent is a competitive advantage and a priority in terms of how they spend their time.” She adds that effective mid-level leadership is delivered virtually and continuously, encourages best practice-sharing among participants, shares success stories of past participants to inspire learners, is personalized and learner-driven, and involves senior executives. “The deep engagement of an organization’s most senior executives,” she says, “is a hallmark characteristic of a best-in-class leadership development program.”
Both Axon and Sturgeon stress the importance of providing relevant and immediately applicable learning experiences, especially considering how busy mid-level leaders are. They also recommend using real projects during training that, when complete, will have a real impact on business results.
“Us[e] an experiential approach,” Sturgeon says, “that allows plenty of opportunities for leaders to be immersed in situations and discussions that feel relevant and real, combined with time to reflect and to build action plans around how, specifically, they will apply what they are learning during development programs.” This relevance, Axon says, will help participants know it’s worth their time and effort and exactly how their new skills or knowledge will help them succeed on the job.
After training, coaching and feedback on the job is critical to helping managers retain and apply what they’ve learned, and Sturgeon adds that building in senior-level leadership support is important.
Aligning Training and Demonstrating Impact
When developing leadership training, meet with senior executives to understand business priorities and make sure the training is focused on the right skills. “Establish direct connections between the capabilities targeted in a program and the strategic priorities of the organization,” Axon says. Involving executives from the start also demonstrates the importance of the program to participants.
“As with all employee development and training,” Sturgeon says, “mid-level leadership development is key in improving productivity, increasing employee engagement and retention, helping employees feel valued, and [improving] prospects for succession planning and sustainable leadership across the business” – all key organizational goals. When leaders across the middle level of the organizational hierarchy have shared training experiences and a common leadership language, they will be able to better align functions across the business.
Using business impact projects in the training can demonstrate clear impact on results if they address business goals, Axon says. “These projects provide a way to measure the impact that a leadership development program has on the business by capturing how the learning was used to address the business change.” It also makes learning contextual, which boosts the impact on the learner.
To assess individual learners and measure the impact of their leadership training, Sturgeon recommends using pre-, ongoing and post-program 360-degree feedback assessments. Additionally, especially if one of the goals of training is to help leaders feel more confident as leaders or in certain situations, measure that “internal” success through “quantifiable self-assessments.”
As industries are disrupted, workforces change rapidly and leaders are continuously faced with new challenges, it’s more important than ever to make sure mid-level leaders are prepared to succeed in their critical roles. Use these tips for effective training, and your mid-level leaders will manage up, down and across to influence change and lead your organization to success.