In the mid-1970s, someone asked John McKay, head coach of the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team, what he thought about his team’s execution. His reply — “I think it’s a good idea.”
While McKay was joking about “executing” his team, in business as well as sports, execution and success are strongly linked. To win in business, leaders need to put together a team of managers who can work and lead together to carry out the business strategy, yet there is a recognizable global leadership skills gap. Plenty of businesses across industries share this same dynamic. The Bucs players were like a bunch of midlevel leaders who could execute a game plan, but couldn’t adjust on the fly or inspire their teammates to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Consider that in a business context. If midlevel leaders are failing, the skills and predispositions that made them good individual contributors and first-level leaders may be undermining their ability to climb the corporate ladder and eventually become senior leaders.
The implications for performance, leadership development and succession are significant, and there is a bit of nature vs. nurture at play. The good news is in many cases, midlevel leaders can be coached to become effective and inspirational.
What Makes a Good Midlevel Leader?
Before talking about how midlevel leaders fall short, let’s first define the role. Midlevel leaders shape and determine the outcome of key organizational initiatives. They manage other managers or a business function and are accountable for achieving milestones, increasing revenue or managing costs. They must influence upward and downward, and convey their group’s input to senior leaders. Although they often are invisible within the organization, their efforts have a direct impact on an enterprise’s results. Further, the lessons they learn are invaluable building blocks for senior executive roles.
Midlevel leaders’ success depends on how well they lead through others. This is determined by a holistic blend of intellectual capacity, motivators, skills, experiences, personality traits and derailers — characteristics that can prevent midlevel leaders from successfully leading through others.
Motivators keep a midlevel leader engaged. Good midlevel leaders tend to be motivated by broader influence and responsibility for organizational direction more than having a friendly work environment and stimulating, challenging work. Better leaders are willing to give up some sense of daily, tangible personal accomplishment to have broader influence on the organization through others.
Personality is also a critical factor. Effective leaders are driven by energy, competitiveness and a desire for achievement. Intellectual engagement is the next critical factor in being a good midlevel and senior-level leader. Leaders are smart, but the differentiator is the ability to use one’s mind to solve problems and complex work situations. Effective midlevel managers also have an individual orientation, meaning they are willing to take a stand on unpopular issues, whether communicating policy to employees or conveying employee feedback upward to top management.
Finally, effective midlevel leaders take charge and lead through influence. When exercised well, this trait can be a foundation for influencing, coaching, engaging and inspiring others. Once they have influenced and coached others, these midlevel leaders are able to give others latitude to do their jobs without micromanaging.
In summary, midlevel leaders are motivated by influence, enjoy leading and developing others, and are able to let others manage the details. All of these behaviors can be learned and developed, or as in the case of personality factors, leveraged in different ways. For example, a leader who is naturally more relaxed can develop influencing skills and learn to drive results. Those skills will just manifest in ways that are consistent with, not counter to, the leader’s personality.
- Some of the top potential derailers for midlevel leaders include:
- Excessive attention to detail, which hinders the big-picture view
- and leads to spending too much time on one task before moving on.
- Avoidance or passive-aggressive behavior, which interferes with resolving problems and conflicts.
- Micromanaging, which not only interferes with delegating, but once work is delegated, may be demotivating because people redo the work.
Caught in the Weeds
Among the key factors for midlevel and senior-level leaders’ success is letting go of some of the behaviors that helped them succeed in their previous positions. Not all of what got leaders to their current level will propel them to the senior ranks.
For example, too much attention to detail in midlevel positions becomes a derailer, though it may have been rewarded in previous roles. Instead leaders must enlist others to manage some details, both trusting and holding them accountable to do it. Other derailers include micromanaging and conflict-avoidance behaviors.
Individuals establish their derailing behaviors early on, and they can be difficult to change without the right attention and development. However, leaders who understand how derailers affect them can actively develop and manage through them. Feedback is the most effective prevention for derailment, as it helps leaders gain awareness of potential issues and make adjustments.
In the authors’ November 2012 report, “Mid-Level Leaders Are Key to Strategy Execution,” bosses rated the current skill level of midlevel leaders, who were defined as managers of managers, based on several competencies. The bosses ranked them as excelling in just two competencies: drive for results and customer focus.
Bosses ranked midlevel leaders as falling short in structuring the work/execution, analysis/judgment, relationships, influence, engaging and inspiring, and building talent.
There is a contrast here: While they are driving for results for the customer, they are ineffective at actually executing effectively. The key to closing the gap between the drive and the execution lies in the other competencies where they fall short. If they can coach others (build talent) and engage them in the goal (engage/inspire and influence), they can empower their team to drive the results at the right level. This increases team performance and helps everyone’s advancement opportunities because they have both performed and prepared themselves for the next level.
Room for Improvement
Making the leap to leadership is a lot like the old joke about success in the entertainment industry. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice.”
Leaders cannot change their ability, personality and derailment tendencies, but they can manage them. Competencies can be learned and developed, and experiences provide the best opportunity to observe, learn and practice new behaviors and skills. These experiences might include working in different functions such as sales, operations and project management, as well as working in challenging circumstances.
In addition to having general management experience, midlevel leaders are expected to perform under adverse conditions, including difficult staffing situations, tough interpersonal situations and inherited problems. Playing it safe and expecting issues to resolve themselves does not help leaders to learn and grow, limiting their immediate and future success.
Most organizations know they should be developing their midlevel leaders. They also know that all managers who want to advance in their careers have to develop their successors. However, many managers of managers are ill-equipped to develop the next generation of leaders. They don’t know how to construct and implement a development plan. They lack the skills and experience to activate a strategy and carry on a dialogue about development.
Enterprises need to create coaching development frameworks and provide managers with practical strategies to develop necessary and critical skills. They also need to adjust their performance management systems so managers are held accountable for building and developing talent from within.
Playing a Winning Game
Some companies are ahead of the curve in creating development programs for midlevel leaders.
Arrow Electronics Inc., a global products and services company for industrial and commercial users of electronic components and enterprise computing products, and Esterline Corp., a specialized manufacturing company, both put in place companywide programs that incorporate online tools and simulation-based exercises to create comprehensive, ongoing development plans that align with organizational strategy.
For Arrow, this exercise was about putting in place a program that provides not just a moment-in-time experience, but something that creates a full picture of skills, experiences and capabilities. The program, which is similar to the one it has in place for senior executives and first-level leaders, includes online learning tools and simulation-based exercises executed via webcam. The goal was to open an ongoing dialogue between managers and their leaders about what they can do to accelerate development actions and focus.
“Our midlevel leaders play a critical role in enabling and driving our strategy,” said Alice Pickens, global succession and organization development manager at Arrow. “This development solution provides actionable insight and ongoing development for real results.”
Esterline’s new approach resulted in a solid succession management path that will enable it to look at participant results and create a development approach to help its leaders realize their full potential. Indirect leadership is an important attribute. In one of the company’s simulations, participants must convince a peer to move in a direction they feel strongly about, though they have no direct authority over that person.
“We wanted to kickstart a more formalized program that would give us confidence in who we viewed as the organization’s future leaders,” said Sara Dnell, HR program manager at Esterline. “We are moving in the right direction toward accomplishing this goal.”
We’ve seen it in the world of business, and we’ve seen it on the field of competition.
A winning strategy comes down to developing and coaching talent. Such was the case with the Bucs.
After a few horrendous seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted some star players, coached the ones they had and eventually won a Super Bowl. Companies can do the same. It all comes down to coaching future leaders, assessing and enhancing their strengths and giving them “big game” experience.
FOUR STEPS TO BOOST MIDLEVEL LEADERS’ EFFECTIVENESS
1. Gain insight into midlevel management challenges, requirements, strategies, expectations and changes. Begin by assessing individuals and simulating a year in the life of a midlevel leader.
2. Build awareness around factors that influence a leader’s ability to transition, including competencies, experiences, motivators/career drivers and leadership foundations. Consider using holistic leadership assessments that provide clear insight and a development plan. Hire coaches to help leaders address these factors.
3. Design opportunities to prepare leaders for role changes. Encourage them to seek out challenging responsibilities and volunteer for tough assignments. Invite leaders to discuss career aspirations with their managers and HR representatives.
4. Provide support for leaders who are onboarding or need help in their current roles. A coach can help them transition more effectively, focus on areas that will make them more successful and hold them accountable for development goals.
— Joy Hazucha and Cori Hill
FOUR STEPS TO EFFECTIVE DEVELOPMENT PLANNING
1. Identify development priorities. Identify strengths and development needs in the context of a current or target role. Where does the individual need to gain or leverage knowledge or skills?
2. Write up development objectives. Identify one or two objectives and consider including areas of strength as well as development needs. Describe what the individual will and will not do. Note specific, measurable/observable, realistic and time-bound success criteria. Seek feedback on the objectives. Sharing draft objectives serves two purposes: refinement and soliciting potential support.
3. Identify on-the-job 70-20-10 action plans. Select practical action steps and break them down into manageable parts. Include a variety of on-the-job activities to sustain employee interest. Integrate action steps into processes, events and tasks they are already doing.
4. Identify formal development experiences to round out the action plan. Choose a limited number of development experiences that will have the greatest impact — no more than 10 percent of your development activities. Build in time to utilize the resource and reflect and apply what has been learned.
— Joy Hazucha and Cori Hill