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Trainer’s tip: Stuck in the middle?


What's the best way to develop middle managers? The 'sink or swim' approach of many organisations can be disastrous. We at TrainingZone particularly liked hearing of Wayne Thomas' experience of asking stakeholders for their opinion. Read his and other trainers advice.

Wayne Thomas suggests - ask the stakeholders:

I had a similar problem (admittedly over a decade ago) when I took up a new group HRD post - long before the days of business partnering. I got my 5,000 odd HR and training people around the world to go into the various businesses and ask the middle managers what learning & development interventions they thought would be helpful to junior managers to develop their knowledge, skills, behaviours and beliefs that would prepare them for middle management positions.

This stakeholder approach provided a rich vein for developmental ideas (as amongst the population as a whole the managers had attended probably every course that was available at the time in the world!), but they also suggested really practical and simple business focused ideas by specialism and business area, and in the end it was from those ideas (generally) that my team devised a fantastic series of programmes for the group.

As a 'for example' of this, what I call 'stakeholdering' approach, one of the key finding was that many of the middle managers who were allegedly 'challenging to work with' (according to my predecessor) actually volunteered to take part as mentors to young high flyers, offered to act as coaches, offered to provide 'challenging projects' in their own areas so that teams of young managers could be given ownership for the success (and yes, in some instances failures), of capital implementation projects.

So in summary, ask the stakeholders first - and that would include the junior manager preparing for transition as their needs are very different to the middle managers.

Harvey Bennett says there are lots of ways to help:

1. A learning styles preference (or better still, a learning styles preference!) for individuals to see how they best learn so that your development activity programme meets their preferences.

2. A diagnostic - learning needs analysis - 360 based on your middle-management competence requirements so you can target their individual need(s)

3. An appropriate range of development actions to meet their needs (coaching, courses, reading, shadowing, etc.)

4. A well-thought through induction programme to prepare them for the change. This should include 1-2-1 meetings with other managers with whom they will be working (internal customers, internal suppliers), and a broad understanding of the organisation and its customers (first line supervision can often have a very blinkered appreciation). This should also cover policies and procedures and authority levels.

5. Clear objectives for the individual so they have absolute clarity of what is expected of them.

6. Discussion with the new appointee's boss so they are absolutely clear about their responsibilities to contribute to a successful transition ('sink or swim' is not an acceptable option). To include regular reviews during the early days and use of the situational leadership model by the boss.

7. A post induction 360 - six to nine months down the road - to assess progress and identify any further development. This would not be a substitute for formal performance appraisal.

Ehsan Honary says leadership skills are crucial:

If we look at what middle management is all about we can see what they need to be trained on or coached on to make successful transitions.

But before we look into what middle management is, let's see what it is not. Middle management is not about passing the buck. It is also not about shifting emails or papers or becoming an assistant to whoever their boss is.

Being a middle manager can be risky since you are higher up so you won't end up doing the task, and not high enough to actually be in control. So you kind of hang in there until either someone from below replaces you or your boss is changed or doesn't like you any more. Either way, you're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

So back to the question, I think solutions can be derived from understanding the true role of the manager. Leading a team is a good role. So they need to be trained on team leadership. This is not project management as some think. This is about vision, motivation, team building and so on.

Another topic to notice of course is a full 360 analysis as mentioned by other users. The middle managers need to understand that they should serve upwards, downwards and sideways if they want to be successful. So again training in communication at all levels, body language, influence, negotiation, client management and so on are all critical skills.

I think this is good challenge and a great opportunity to put together some really interesting material for training.

Hilary Morrish Allen says understanding the new role is critical:

My belief is that the most important thing about successful transition between (any) management roles is developing a clear emotional understanding of the shift in roles and what that means in terms of the responsibilities, accountabilities, tasks and objectives - rather than what skills you teach (which will vary individual to individual).

Just as the biggest struggle in the step into first line management is the transition from super-doer to supervisor - the step into middle management is generally the step from 'how to do something' into 'what to do'.

I spend most of my time when coaching new managers on this area - understanding the differences in their role now (from their previous role) and how this changes expectations, relationships and leadership requirements.
It also helps drive the discussion about what tasks are different - eg what you now don't do (because it is for your successor in the lower role to do) and what you now do do - as you step up.

I often have to deal with frustrations in teams which have developed because the new middle manager 'won't let go of things'. Often this is because they don't really know what it is they should actually be doing in their new role and feel a bit of a spare part! It is not (only) about the actual day to day tasks they should be doing - but their 'place'/'purpose' in the bigger scheme of things.

'Stuck in the middle' is an unfortunate but real feeling for a lot of new middle managers. I try to shift this rather negative 'squashed from both ends' focus into one more focused on being a conduite relationship between the 'why we do things' at the top and the 'how to do things' at the front line.

View the original posting with more advice from trainers here:

Helping managers transition into next levels of management

See more Trainer’s Tips


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