Why employers should recognize, support and train middle managers

Middle managers, as the bridge connecting those at the top of an organization with the wider workforce, are an integral part of how a company runs.

According to a 2016 study by Harvard Business School, performance tends to be higher among employees who sense their tasks are significant to an organization and are provided with the tools to complete them. It also found that if an organization is to make financial gains, the middle managers are the ones needed to make it happen.

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It’s no wonder, then, that the American Express Co. refers to middle management as “the magic middle.” The nickname refers to these managers being the future leaders of the company and enablers of change and organizational productivity, says Catherine Finley, vice-president of human resources at American Express.

“We’ve looked at how do we invest, how do we best deploy, how do we provide career journey experiences for our middle managers? And how do we really leverage them to be those cultural enablers?”

Ilana Hechter, partner and lead of talent strategy and transformation at Mercer Canada, says organizations have a key responsibility to invest in leaders of all levels. “When we think about leaders, we tend to think about the executive layer, but . . . we need to, as organizations, take accountability for finding, developing and nurturing future leaders. We know that 75 per cent of people who leave [a company] cite relationships with their leaders as a key driver.”

And while a senior leader may affect the overall direction of an organization, it’s the day-to-day relationships between employees, supervisors and their direct managers that matter from an employee experience standpoint, she says.

In the middle

A 2016 survey by Interact Authentically found managers are uncomfortable on a number of communication fronts. These include:

Demonstrating vulnerability

Recognizing employee achievements

Delivering the company line in a genuine way

Providing clear directions

Crediting others with having good ideas

Speaking face to face rather than by email

A culture of strength

So why the magic middle for American Express? When the company looks at its managers and directors, those are the employees who are directing the actual work that’s taking place, says Finley. “They may not be at a point where they’re completely setting the strategy, but they’re the ones executing the strategy, bringing it to fruition and directing the work that needs to happen to ensure business success and continuity.”

Read: How American Express is creating a culture of health

The company needs these people, she adds, and it needs to acknowledge that they’re absolutely critical to an organization’s success.

While Deloitte refrains from using the term “middle management,” it has a similar philosophy for employees in the middle — not quite executive level but who manage staff and projects at a higher level. “We try to invest in the level for their own learning and help them develop their careers as they go on to potentially taking on bigger roles and really learning how to leverage people and bring the best out of our people,” says Diana Bartolic, a partner on Deloitte’s talent team.

“We are very much focused on the culture of strength, matching people to their strengths. And, I think, managers play a key role in understanding their people, understanding their strengths and how we align people to their strengths.”

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According to Finley, American Express invests so much in leadership because, not only are employees in the magic middle directing work and strategizing, “they’re also on the ground, so they are able to help invigorate and influence a positive culture.”

And a positive culture is critically important to success, she says. “Ensuring that they have the skill set and the tool kit to deal with challenging situations; that’s why we invest so much on the leadership front.”

Hechter says she’s learned that effective leadership isn’t intuitive. “It’s a real learned capability that needs to be encouraged and taught, because appropriate support for soft skill development is the real issue.”

It’s these people in an organization — the middle managers — that companies need to encourage and invest in, she says, because these employees drive growth, innovation and the future of work.”

Alethea Spiridon is managing editor of Benefits Canada.