Middle management plays a fundamental role in a company’s business strategy. Organisations therefore need to choose not only the right people but also the appropriate training to ensure they make the most impact


If management is the art of getting things done through people, then mid-level managers are the catalysts that accelerate this process. They translate executive strategy into implementation on the ground.

‘When you talk about middle management, you refer to the band in the middle of a hierarchy. They are the interface between the general worker, the employee and the top management,’ says Suki Goodman, associate professor and head of organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town.

‘Middle managers play a fundamental role in most organisations. They consult upwards as well as downwards. They are the ones responsible for implementing the strategy that is developed at the top level. They are also responsible for monitoring staff performance.’

As they are involved in the day-to-day running of an organisation, middle managers can pass on important information and act as a communication channel between top management and lower-level employees. A key function of mid-level management is to lead, guide and motivate staff.

While this can improve the co-ordination between various echelons within an organisation and create a productive work environment, a middle manager with poor competencies can have the opposite effect. Bad mid-level management is cited as a major reason why subordinates leave a company.

According to a recent study by the US-based Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management, ensuring middle managers have a good relationship with their own supervisors is fundamental to retaining the lower-level employees under their management.

As Ray Friedman, Vanderbilt professor and one of the study’s authors explains, the way middle managers treat their staff reflects how they are treated by their bosses. ‘Despite the lack of direct contact between senior managers and line employees, senior managers can have a significant influence on those line employees,’ he says.

The study also found that sometimes lower-level staff quit as a direct result of their middle manager not having a good relationship with their own boss.

Goodman says that while the role of middle management is ‘significant’ in an organisation, it is also sometimes regarded as ‘dispensable.’ She says: ‘When companies downsize, middle management is one of the first layers to go.

‘The core of an organisation consists of the employees on the ground who do the actual work and the top managers who make the decisions. Sometimes there are just too many people in-between, so the company may decide to lose a management layer in order to streamline itself.’

However, it’s too late to identify a problem once somebody has been appointed to a middle management position, says Goodman. ‘Not everybody is able to manage people. If a company has made a bad decision in its managerial selection, it can either put that person under performance management or give them an option of doing something else altogether. The obvious solution would be to select middle managers correctly in the first place.’

Gallup, a US research house and business analysis consultancy, agrees with Goodman. It has found that one of the most important decisions that companies have to make is who they select as managers. Yet firms rarely get it right, as Gallup’s Randall Beck and James Harter explain in a Harvard Business Review article titled Why Good Managers are so Rare.

‘In fact, Gallup finds that companies fail to choose the candidate with the right talent for the job 82% of the time,’ according to the authors. ‘Bad managers cost businesses billions of dollars each year, and having too many of them can bring down a company.’

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‘Even a talented “people manager” requires a minimum of three years to master the skills of people management’


‘Most [firms] promote workers into managerial positions because they seemingly deserve it, rather than because they have the talent for it. They don’t take into account whether the candidate has the right talent to thrive in the role. 

‘Being a very successful programmer, salesperson or engineer, for example, is no guarantee that someone will be even remotely adept at managing others.’

Goodman says: ‘Instead of identifying people who are competent, who are “people-people” or have experience in people management, many organisations promote the hot-shot IT techie into middle management because he is a star performer and can’t be promoted anywhere else in his department,’ she says.

She adds that instead of taking this approach, HR departments should rather invest more time and money into identifying which employees are the right ones to move up into managerial positions. At the same time, firms should ensure that there are suitable career paths for those who deserve to be promoted but aren’t cut out for management.

‘I believe that even a talented “people manager” requires a minimum of three years to master the skills of people management, to get a handle on what it means to move from general employee to mid-level manager,’ says Goodman.

‘It’s a huge transition. People need time and opportunity to show their true potential. But if after a certain period they are not shaping up, then you need to fill the position with someone else. I don’t believe it’s possible to make middle managers out of everybody.

‘You need to identify rising stars or people with managerial capacity early in their career in order to develop them into those roles, as opposed to trying to turn someone already holding that position into the manager that you require.’

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Goodman says that most organisations in SA spend a large part of their training budget on leadership development. ‘This can either be in the form of in-house training and custom-developed courses, or by sending people on MBAs or other types of management development.

‘There’s very little research on how successful this really is. I think this area needs some attention.’ In her experience, Goodman says that the most successful leadership interventions are personal coaching and mentoring methodologies where the mentor focuses on building a mid-level manager’s particular capacity.

‘Working with a coach in a one-on-one environment and having a mentor allows a person to reflect on their current practice and that ultimately leads to shifts and improvements.

‘Going to a classroom or attending an MBA lecture where they learn content is one thing, but the real value lies in somebody’s capacity to reflect on what they do well and what they don’t do well, where there’s a learning opportunity and what they will need to master in order to improve their job performance.

‘That’s what seems to have a fair amount of traction in terms of leadership development, rather than sending them off to maths education or into a classroom,’ she says.

A report titled Strengthening the Middle by talent management consultancy Development Dimensions International looks at global challenges and best practices in mid-level leader development.

Jack Beach, IBM manager of leadership research and executive programmes, who participated in the survey, is quoted as saying that coaching and mentoring have had a tremendous effect in his company. ‘These are all very smart people,’ he says. ‘You don’t need to teach them the concepts per se.

‘Rather it is exposing these leaders to various experiences, actual and simulated, and having senior leaders provide practical guidance or act as a coach who can accelerate development. Mentors’ and coaches’ most important function is to help these individuals learn from their experiences. Just having various experiences does not guarantee learning will occur.’

Since there is no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to managerial development, HR practitioners have to choose from hundreds of different techniques and theories.

Goodman says that it depends on the specific individual, the position and the organisation. Some companies train 90% on the job because the role is very specific but other jobs are quite generic.

‘Take a call centre for example: here you have people managing people, so perhaps there is a formula that works best for call centres. But it’s not necessarily going to work on a factory floor or in a financial organisation.’

Once organisations move away from generic, content-based leadership training to individualised, one-on-one development plans, middle management may be able to prove to their critics that their role is essential when it comes to translating executive strategy into implementation on the ground.

By Silke Colquhoun
Image: Gareth van Nelson/HSMimages