There’s a group we’ve been shortchanging when it comes to leadership development — the middle manager. Maybe it’s because we believe their skills have already been formed, their transitions aren’t as complex or that there’s more urgent investment needs in executives, front-line leaders or even high-potential employees. Regardless of the reason, this often-ignored group might just be the most important one for targeted leadership development, and McKinsey’s recent research on the topic backs up that claim. Let’s put it into perspective:

Imagine Justin. For the last three years, he’s been a shift supervisor for a front-line supply chain team of 20 individuals. In the last two months, he’s been promoted to a senior manager role. His direct reports have shifted from frontline, shift-based team members to three shift supervisors, who each manage a team of 20 team members across multiple locations. His span of leadership now extends indirectly to a dispersed team of 65 individuals. His peer team has also changed and he’s directly reporting into a more senior leader who expects more streamlined, data informed updates than he’s used to providing. He’s no longer just executing on someone else’s strategic decisions. He’s now responsible for making them, at a time when the supply chain industry is plagued with uncertainty and rapid change.

There are many real leaders out there like Justin. Whether your organization calls them senior managers, directors, or something else, they’re that first layer who directly supervises front line leaders rather than individual contributors.

Why the Middle Manager?

Recent research consistently highlights how essential manager development is for organizational success. At a time when manager’s roles are becoming more complex, an effective manager is one of, if not the biggest predictor of employee engagement, performance, retention and even well-being. A recent study from the Workforce Institute at UKG even found that managers impacted an individual’s mental health more than their doctor and on par with their spouse.

Yet, this research is often reflective of the relationship of an employee’s direct supervisor, so why is the middle manager or skip layer so important? When I lead middle manager development programs, I facilitate an exercise asking newly transitioned middle managers to identify the core difference of leadership at this level. The same answer always emerges, regardless of the function or organization: leading more through influence rather than direction.

While the middle manager has direct reports, their span of control generally becomes smaller than when they led individual contributors. However, their circle of influence dramatically expands upwards and outwards. As a leader of managers, their behavior and messaging directly cascade from their direct reports to the front-line team members those individuals lead. With a broader purview, they’re also connected to more stakeholders within the organization, which can impact peers’ behavior or how other teams interact with their own team. As they report directly into higher levels of leaders, their ability to influence strategy and advocate for business and team needs also expands. This span of influence is like a shockwave that reverberates in all directions throughout an organization.

Middle managers are the bridge between strategy and execution, and are the catalyst for change up, down and across the organization. Put another way, they’re your organization’s cultural nexus point.

They’re also your organization’s future — your pipeline for succession planning. And, because of that, the development you invest in them (or don’t) can make or break your organizational results, team retention, and internal culture in the short- and long-term.

The Middle Manager Skill Set Elevation

When we think about leadership transitions, we often orient to the first-time leader and the leap from being an individual contributor to leading people. We start here because it’s known that the skill set that contributes to high performance as an individual contributor is different than the skill set of high-performing leaders. The same is true when distinguishing between a front-line manager and a leader of other leaders.

The transition point to middle management is often ignored in leadership development because those who move into middle management have generally had direct people leadership experience. However, the shift from leading individual contributors to leading leaders might actually be more difficult than the shift to leading people for the first time. This is because the foundations of people leadership are already there, leaders may assume that how they’ve successfully led individual contributors will directly translate to leading leaders. However, the middle manager transition is rife with new tension points and even paradoxes that they need to learn to effectively navigate. And their ability to do so has a significant impact on the success of not only the teams they lead, but the overall business as a whole.

So, what are the paradoxes that middle managers face?

  • Their accountability for results increases while their direct control to create those results diminishes.
  • Their sphere of influence widens at a time when they have fewer touchpoints with those who they’re responsible for.
  • They lead a team that needs to execute on results today, while their direct work is aimed at the needs of tomorrow.
  • Their organizational aperture is broadened, while their team’s scope is focused.
  • With a broader scope of responsibility, they become more of an organizational pillar, while still needing to lead with authenticity.

With that in mind, the most important skill for a middle manager to learn is to identify, accept, and lead through rather than against those tensions. That means approaching them from a “both/and” rather than “either/or” mindset. While a course could be a starting point for middle managers to understand the concept of paradoxes, the best way for them to learn the skill to lead through these paradoxes is through a combination of coaching and application — whether that be in a one-on-one or group coaching format. A coach can help leaders dive into their own experiences in navigating these paradoxes and the actions they can take that are natural to them. The facilitated dialogue and personal integration is more likely to create stronger “aha” moments that will translate into action and behavioral change. With ongoing coaching, this knowledge can translate to meaningful, relevant goals, progress points, and accountability checks along the way in both group and individual formats.

Once middle managers have a baseline competency in how to identify and effectively lead through natural tensions, their overall development and success relies on their ability to apply core leadership skills in new ways. Much like a photographer who switches from a zoom to a panoramic lens, the middle manager has the same equipment and environment but needs to change their lens, focus, and approach to effectively execute. Building a middle manager’s zoom capabilities means enhancing the following skills: broadened thinking and perspective, orienting toward the future, empowering rather than executing, and creating systems that drive results while encouraging agility and growth. These skills are applied through their leadership presence, and through their people leadership, team leadership and business leadership practices.

For each of these domains, the skills elevation can be described in “from-to” states, to enable middle managers to see the distinction between where they were as a front-line manager and where they need to be as a middle manager. “From-to” states also provide shared leadership language and clear pathing to assess behaviors through development progression.

We’ll consider each of these skills in more detail in the second article of this two-part series.