3 Strategies to Develop Middle Management

Excerpt from the chapter, “It’s All About the Middle,” from Bruce Hodes’ first book, “Front-Line Heroes: Battling the Business Tsunami While Developing Performance Oriented Cultures.”

By Bruce Hodes

I have never been a lover of the sandwich. It sounds un-American and un-manly. However, my lack of interest comes from the bread—the sandwich’s top and bottom. What’s the purpose? However, I am wildly attracted to the middle of the sandwich. Whether the sandwich is ham and provolone, chicken and mustard, or peanut butter and jelly, for me it is always the middle that dictates how much a sandwich is enjoyed and appreciated.

I can imagine that you think an ode to the middle of sandwiches cannot in any way be related to a book about successfully growing an organization. Stay put and hang in there, as I am truly a genius; here comes the transition.

Not the Top, Not the Bottom

In privately held companies after a certain size (50 to 500 employees), it is the middle—as in management—that is a critical element of a company. We are talking about the layer of leadership and coordination between the top strategic leadership and the front line. It is this middle that will help dictate the firm’s long-term success.

This assertion flies in the face of what most business commentators offer. These talking heads focus on the importance of the top of the company—the Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, and Ken Leahy, CEOs who were all, according to the pundits, apparently single-handedly responsible for the success or demise of their organizations.

Typically, companies of about 50 to 500 employees or more, have a “middle” as in management. These key employees are important to the success of the overall organization. These key employees, now called managers and/or team leaders, become crucial in leading and developing different sectors of the company.

So, what should be done? How is it that a company dealing with today’s myriad challenges can also develop a strong middle that aspires to leadership? How is a cast of characters like this developed? Here are three strategies that I have seen utilized in successful companies.

The First Strategy

Hire people in the middle who have aspirations, who want to grow and develop, and who are mobile. Thus, you have leaders who are eager for opportunity. They are attracted to moving, working in a new location is attractive for them, and they are excited about establishing a new beachhead for the company.

Create a process in which, as one of its yearly goals and objectives, top leadership has to develop and take courses. In one company I worked with, if you could not demonstrate to the CEO that you had improved your skill set and thinking abilities in the last year, you were not eligible for a raise no matter how well you had performed. In another company, if you aspired to be a director, you had to get an MBA. These policies can support a company in dramatically growing both revenue and profits.

The Second Strategy

Another way to support the growth and development of the middle is to form a group of middle managers from various companies. Participants are leaders from different departments: Sales executives give input to Production and Human Resource department heads, and so on. There is learning and sharing of different views that goes on during the group sessions, which I also recommend being led by an outside facilitator.

I have led such a middle manager key employee group. We met for each session at different companies, which allowed participants to see the different facets of participating organizations. This key middle management group also gained perspective by reading a different book for each session. Members coached one another on issues and concerns brought to the meetings. The coaching model we followed goes like this:

  1. A participant presents a problem with which he or she wants coaching and counseling. This is something challenging they want their peers’ perspectives on.
  2. In “round robin” style, everyone asks questions about the issue. You are only allowed to ask one question at a time. Once the question is asked, the person presenting the issue responds with an answer. Then the next person asks a question. Once all questions are asked and responded to, it is assumed everyone understands the issue.
  3. Participants then give coaching and feedback to the person presenting the issue. The participants, in effect, become one another’s board of advisors.

The Third Strategy

Still another way of developing the middle is through the establishment of a middle management development and training program. What this does is either bring in talented new hires or promote key employees into a rotation of positions throughout the company. Rotations can last from six months to a year, and the entire program can last up to two years.

At one company I worked with, the underwriting manager became the claims manager, and the claims manager became the underwriting manager. What was great was that the employees of each department stepped up to support and train their new managers. This had some positive results. By teaching their new bosses, the employees better learned their own disciplines and roles. They also gained experience in managing up and supporting a manager to win. Meanwhile, the new managers got trained in an aspect of the business with which they were unfamiliar. They became better-rounded executives.

At another company, managers formally rotated to sales and production management positions before being eligible to be plant and territory general managers. This type of initiative provides a training and development course that allows employees to experience and learn about the different facets and aspects of the firm. This makes them more valuable as future leaders of the company.

Expanding My Middle Even Further

So there you have it: three strategies you can utilize to grow the middle deliciousness of your company. May you grow and develop it for long-lasting success! Writing this was a workout, and now I am hungry. Give me a chicken and cheese sandwich. Hold the bread. Here’s to you and your business middle.

This article is an excerpt from the chapter, “It’s All About the Middle,” from Bruce Hodes’first book,“Front-Line Heroes: Battling the Business Tsunami While Developing Performance Oriented Cultures.” For more information, visit http://www.cmiteamwork.com/Hodes-Front-Line-Heroes.htm

Since growing up in his family’s boating business to founding his company, CMI, Bruce Hodes has dedicated himself to helping companies grow by developing executive leadership teams, business leaders, and executives into powerful performers. Hodes’ adaptable Breakthrough Strategic Business Planning methodology has been specifically designed for small to mid-sized companies and is especially valuable for family company challenges. With a background in psychotherapy, Hodes also has an MBA from Northwestern University and a Masters in Clinical Social Work. For more information, e-mail bhodes@cmiteamwork.com or visit http://www.cmiteamwork.com.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.