To Develop a Workforce of Agile Leaders, Look to Middle Managers

BY Emily Nonko | November 06, 2020

In a study evaluating how the 2008 economic crisis affected employee engagement, the research found that middle managers suffered the most. Employee engagement decreased within middle management by 13%, vs. only a slight drop for top executives. The decline was particularly concerning given that the study also found middle management had a higher influence on overall employee engagement than senior leaders.

This data is telling in the midst of current economic and business challenges, according to Rachel Ernst, chief human resources officer for the performance-management company Reflektive. In a presentation at From Day One’s recent conference on the workforce of the future, Ernst made the case for why organizations need to focus on middle management as they strategize to overcome the upheaval of this year–and move effectively into 2021.

But first, Ernst highlighted the main challenge when it comes to this management cohort: “Middle managers are really squeezed between an executive team who is setting the vision and strategy of the organization, who tell middle managers what they need to do to create a plan and drive execution across the organization,” she explained. “Then you have the employees they are overseeing who ask, Why are we making these decisions? Middle managers aren’t in that executive suite to really understand the information behind the decisions being made.”

During a crisis or upheaval, things can change across an organization quickly. Middle managers have an important role to play that is often lost. Ernst pointed out that HR offices more often focus on executive development, employees deemed “high potentials,” and front-line managers recently promoted.

Before organizations turn their attention to middle managers, they should first identify who they are. “Who reports to executive teams and has significant influence across your organization?” Ernst asked. Once organizations identify those critical leaders, they can develop a program helping them drive the behavior desired across the organization.

Ernst used her own company, Reflektive, to demonstrate how this process could look. Reflektive developed a Director Master Class Program based on the 70/20/10 learning model, in which 10% is offered through a formal program, 20% through social learning and 70% dedicated to experiential learning.

The goal, Ernst said, was to build a leadership community among middle managers as well as develop adaptive leadership that’s well-prepared to respond to organizational changes.

The formal learning portion of the Director Master Class Program asked middle manager participants to identify their top five strengths and share their leadership style. It helped participants to not only identify their own strengths and learning styles, but partner with managers offering different qualities. Reflektive also asked company directors to read the book Leadership Agility to help them identify skills in being agile and moving up in levels of leadership.

There’s a role here for the company as well. Ernst said Reflektive redefined its values at the beginning of the pandemic and integrated those into the program. “You need to break down, ‘Hey, middle management, this is what we expect from you in terms of our values and how we want you to model them for the rest of the organization,’” she said.

The social-learning component is offered through an executive mentorship program. Ernst defined it as a loosely structured, agile partnership in which a middle manager and executive leader speak once a month for 45 minutes. “What we’re learning is that our middle managers, regardless of how tenured they are, are learning a lot from the executive’s point of view,” she noted. It’s become an opportunity for the executive to explain how and why decisions are made, what Ernst calls “lifting the veil” on executive decision making.

Experiential learning is offered by Reflektive through a few tools. The company has middle managers participate more actively in all-hands forums, presenting important updates about their departments and "deciding what and how to message information so that it resonates well with the employee base," Ernst said. Middle managers also have been invited into executive meetings to discuss the projects they lead. Finally, the company held an offsite to identify 2021 goals, then asked the Director Master Class to come up with implementation recommendations.

“Investing in our middle managers is the most critical thing we can be doing to really drive the kind of growth and change we need in our organizations moving forward and into our future,” Ernst emphasized. “We need to define who are our middle managers and identify those critical skills for them to build on to lead their organization.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership presentation: Reflektive. Thank you as well to everyone who attended this conference live. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.


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