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Stuck in the Middle With You: Walking the Tightrope

This is the third in a three-part series exploring mid-level leadership development. Parts one and two discussed the development needs of mid-level leaders tackling specific business drivers, and the common challenges confronting those who operate at the mid-level.

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

Imagine asking a group of individuals to climb a ladder and walk a tightrope 15 to 20 metres above the ground. No practice, no safety net, and no harness. Some may simply decline the request outright. Others may climb the ladder but elect to turn back once the significance of the tightrope challenge is realised. Some may take on the total challenge but sadly fail in their attempt to complete the crossing. A small percentage though, through a combination of talent and luck, may succeed in making their way up the ladder and across the tightrope. If this sounds crazy, then consider the reality for many mid-level leaders today:

  • DDI research found only 10 percent of mid-level leaders feel well-prepared for the challenges your business is facing.
  • Danger in the Middle (Harvard Business Publishing) revealed that only 28 percent of organisations feel their development programs had evolved to match the changing needs of mid-level leaders.
  • DDI and The Conference Board’s Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 found that a third of mid-level leaders say their managers are not sufficiently involved in their development as leaders.

At a time when the demand for talent is increasing and supply is shrinking, it appears many organisations fail to put the appropriate systems in place to ensure emerging mid-level leaders have the skills they need to succeed. In accelerating leaders to step into these roles, they provide little support or structured preparation for what lies ahead. They are, in effect, asking leaders to climb a ladder and walk a tightrope with no practice, safety net, or harness.

Learning the Ropes

Walking a TightropeTransition to the mid-level brings new challenges. In a DDI study of leadership transitions, leaders who had already made the transition to the mid-level reflected on those aspects of the transition that they found the most challenging. These included getting work done through others, engaging and inspiring employees, and dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. Furthermore, results from Danger in the Middle found that two-thirds of respondents feel that a change in mindset is fundamental to success at the mid-level. This reflects the significant personal transformations required for the transition. Mid-level leaders struggle to achieve increased self-awareness, influence, and work/life balance as they direct bigger groups and balance the needs of those above and below.

As cited in the HBP paper, knowing the challenges that new mid-level leaders face and failing to support them can have significant personal and financial implications for individuals and organisations.

Transitional challenges faced by new mid-level leaders include:

  • Tactical control: Mid-level leaders need to remove themselves from the day-to-day operations and rely more on the expertise of others, including direct reports. Having been rewarded in the past for getting things done, these leaders find letting go to be quite a challenge. If, however, they don’t let go, they become quickly overwhelmed by the myriad of responsibilities and risk disempowering those around them.
  • Consequences of failure: At this level, the consequences are much great than at lower levels and so are the resulting degrees of pressure and stress. Mid-level leaders who struggle with this high-stakes anxiety may display higher levels of perfectionism, find it difficult to balance life domains, and/or push their people to perform.
  • Visibility: There is no hiding in the middle. The transition to the mid-level often comes with heightened visibility both inside and outside the organisation.

Perhaps the most significant transition-related challenge faced by mid-level leaders is recognising and managing derailing tendencies. Derailers refer to the personality attributes that can get in the way of our success. Common derailers at this level include perfectionism, risk aversion, impulsiveness, and avoidance. For many mid-level leaders, this is the first time they have been exposed to the conditions and pressures that trigger derailing responses. In fact, in many cases the things that have made them successful in the past may well be the things that derail them at the mid-level.

So what can be done to smooth the transition for new mid-level leaders?

  • Help new leaders understand the challenge of the transition. What are they going to face, and how will it be different? For many mid-level leaders, letting go of the things that have made them successful in the past may be their biggest challenge.
  • Increase awareness of one’s personal style and derailing risks. There are several instruments available to help understand one’s dominant personal style. At DDI, we use the Global Leadership Inventories (GLIs). These inventories provide a powerful insight into both the bright side of personality and potential derailers.
  • Use assessment to help individuals understand the strengths and development areas they bring to the role. Use these insights to formulate robust individual development plans.
  • Ensure they are equipped early with the skills that will be fundamental to success at this level. Article two in this series refers to the common challenges faced by mid-level leaders and the capabilities that are important for success.
  • Provide support during the transition—access to coaches, mentors, and peers. Furthermore, create ongoing opportunities to learn from other mid-level leaders and share experiences.

Pressure in the Vise

The HBP paper Danger in the Middle challenged organisations to change their “barbell” approach to leadership development. They described the barbell as the tendency of organisations to place heavy emphasis on training senior leaders and new managers, but putting little focus on mid-level leaders.

Mid-level leaders are at the mercy of a multitude of influences that place them in the middle of a figurative vise, and they are feeling squeezed. Every day they are challenged to make critical decisions whilst balancing trade-offs on cost, quality, and efficiency. They must also find ways to motivate and retain key talent whilst balancing the commercial and operational expectations of more-senior stakeholders. It can be argued that the future success of your organisation sits squarely on the shoulders of your mid-level leaders, and your ability to release the pressure on that vise will go a long way to ensuring the success of your business in today’s complex environment. The bottom line: Ignore the development of mid-level leaders at your peril.

Click on this link to review parts one and two in this series.

Designed specifically for the mid-level, Leader3 Ready® is a powerful, realistic assessment experience that makes it easier to obtain critical insights about your mid-level leaders. Leader3 Ready® diagnoses development needs more accurately and includes built-in development planning tools to begin the development journey for new or future mid-level leaders.

Mark Busine is managing director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 21 Aug, 2015,
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