Enhancing leadership: Strengthening the middle

Moving from the neophyte level of leadership in organizations takes individuals into middle management. Organizations and industries label this level in various ways as supervisory, junior management or associate. The neophyte attains this level by promotion based on historical performance parameters. Future capability is not assessed in detail and investment in preparation is mostly limited. Yet, the shift to middle management comes with greater expectations and responsibilities. The requirements for enhancing leadership at middle management are unique. This article offers five prescriptions for developing the middle manager.

Sharing responsibilities

After recognizing and rewarding the effort of the neophyte with promotion to middle management, fresh circumstances become applicable. The euphoria of elevation has to be matched by distributing the weight of responsibility to the newly assigned middle manager. It is imperative that senior managers as much as possible cede some measure of authority to strengthen the middle manager.

In the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model, this aspect of development is referred to as Enable Others to Act. The commitment that leaders have to make is described as “strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence”. At this stage, middle leaders need to migrate from being functionally competent to building people skills. Sadly, in many companies, this transition continues with repetitive expressions of technical skills. The result is that potential leaders are devoid of people skills before they reach senior management.

Offering challenges

It is sometimes said that certain individuals lack initiative but initiative may not be displayed until a challenge is presented. To develop the middle manager, it is necessary to provide purposeful challenges to enhance learning from experience. Competence is partly built from confidence but confidence does not come without scaling increasingly bigger challenges. To use a sporting analogy, you can’t expect a high jumper who has not scaled three feet to suddenly find the confidence to overcome a six-feet bar. As challenges are placed before middle managers, there should be an acceptance that mistakes form part of the learning process. It is an anomaly to desire learning that is error free.

Organisations can choose from a range of methodologies such as projects, relief assignments and deputising. If the neophyte level is properly structured, there would already be manifestations of high potential employee capabilities. Many years ago, l learnt that Shell Oil’s vocabulary defined such capabilities as “having helicopter qualities”. Helicopter qualities refer to the potential of an individual to rise rapidly within the organisation compared to peers. Identifying employees with helicopter qualities improves decision making about how to spend employee development budgets. After all, you don’t want to invest in learning tickets for those who are less likely to take full advantage and attend the show.

Managing transitions

The middle manager has to deal with two transitions. Firstly, the transition from neophyte to the mid level. Secondly, shifting gears to transit to senior management. These transitions are can prove silently difficult and should be well managed. In one of the FMCG clients I have been privileged to serve, a program was designed to help newly deployed middle managers adjust to their roles. Realities such as managing former peers, relating with higher level leaders, building relationships, emotional intelligence and getting overwhelmed should be proactively addressed with transition programmes.

Now, a brief word about those I define as ADMs (Ambitious Digitalised Millennials). Considerations about fast tracking ADMs must be in the framework for talent managers. ADMs don’t have the old employee patience to wait in line or hang around in roles that become devoid of challenges. Unless the relevant transitions are carefully planned, companies will merely be reactive.


The middle cadre is at the core of organizations and serves as the bridge between the upper and lower echelons. There is a strong argument for giving middle management training top priority. Significantly, employees at that level are influencing many outcomes for which they should be prepared – driving business results, engaging customers, and managing bulk of the employees. Training at this level should be specifically planned and entail a balanced combination of classroom learning and experience gathering. It should also be supported with coaching and measurements of progression in leadership capacity. Of particular importance in the big conversation on training is how HR leaders can switch organizational mindsets about people from the cost side to the investment side.


Feedback on progress is not simply for HR annual records but should be applied as a tool of development. Assessments at least in 180 degrees from direct reports and direct bosses begin the frame a deeper leadership and learning philosophy. The feedback should include assessment of leadership development and job performance. Meaningful feedback puts people into better modes of performance and gives pointers about further development.

Closing note

The middle management level is like the stomach of the organisation, hidden away and often deemed insignificant. Yet, forward looking organisations see their futures in this group of employees and proactively develop their leadership capacity. This should not be optional for sustained business growth because the future lies in strengthening the middle.

Weyinmi Jemide


Source: BusinessDay

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