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Time to Focus on Middle Manager Development

Midlevel managers tend to have a litany of responsibilities. With companies facing tight budget constraints, midlevel managers are bearing the brunt of the work, and recent studies show they are becoming less satisfied with their work experience.

Large organizations rely on midlevel managers for much of their day-to-day operations, and with 10.8 million midlevel positions in the U.S. last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing these employees their organizational value by developing them further remains paramount.

Only 44 percent of midlevel managers are satisfied with their work-life balance, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2012 Employee Outlook Survey. What’s more, 70 percent of employees without managerial responsibility report being satisfied, signaling a significant drop once an employee is promoted to a midlevel manager role.

As midlevel managers feel an increased pressure from both above and below, some companies find these managers to be less energized and motivated because of poor work-life balance and little organizational power, said Jacob Spilman, owner of the consultancy Spilman & Associates LLC.

“Middle managers often feel unrealistically responsible for the systemic pressures of the organization,” Spilman said. “Middle managers are typically told that they have the job of implementing the strategy of the executive suite. However, all their power to implement the mission or objectives and their ability to obtain resources originate with the executive suite, too.

“So, all too often, if the middle manager doesn’t have sufficient power or resources to do their job, or if they don’t have a clear, realistic or effective organizational strategy, the middle manager will wind up caught between the competing incentives of the executive suite and their line workers.”

With just half of midlevel managers receiving formal leadership development in 2012, according to a study by consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte, it’s easy for midlevel managers to feel that there’s no clear path to professional growth, Spilman said.

To empower midlevel managers, companies need to develop their talents and evaluate their goals, Spilman said. In addition, he said midlevel managers will feel more valued if they are personally acknowledged, given workplace autonomy, developing meaningful projects and are addressed with respect from their colleagues.

Demonstrating a midlevel manager’s value through a company’s actions rather than just a title will ultimately boost their overall efficacy. Alison Hooker, chief talent development officer for the Americas for professional services firm EY — formerly Ernst & Young — said the firm’s midlevel managers have great organizational value, and it works to validate their worth through reinforcing their needs.

“Our business depends on retaining those who are mid-career managers; they have the experience and have developed the judgment we need to deliver the quality our clients expect,” Hooker said. “It’s smart business to keep mid-career managers happy because they serve as a pivot point in any organization. They set the tone for the majority of a team’s work. If managers do not feel valued and engaged, chances are those reporting to them will not feel engaged, either.”

Hooker said EY helps its midlevel managers develop their leadership potential while relating the personal and professional benefits of being in a mid-career position. Once a year, EY hosts a weeklong leadership training program for more than 3,500 employees who have reached that level.

“It’s designed to ensure that our professionals are given the tools and foundational learning that will be needed to grow as a leader,” Hooker said. “It touches on topics such as individual social styles, internal biases that one brings to interactions with others, and the effective leadership of the highest-performing teams.”

Like EY, companies are starting to see the importance of developing mid-career employees: Spending on midlevel leadership development increased to an average of $2,700 per employee in 2012, up from $1,000 per employee in 2009, according to Bersin by Deloitte.

“Happiness is a feeling that comes and goes,” Spilman said. “Your staff will go through projects that are important to them, even sacrificing personal happiness if they are personally engaged in the mission. Instead, I’d be more interested in what keeps my staff energized and motivated to meet your organization’s goals.”

Jessica DuBois-Maahs is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.