Thought Leadership

Are you a frustrated middle manager?

Are you a frustrated middle manager?

Stuck in middle management for years? Struggling to break through the glass ceiling? Can’t see a clear path into senior management? Feeling abandoned, stuck, and with no sense of how to get moving again? How do you make that transition from Manager to Head of Service, and, if desired, beyond?

In countless briefings for Chief Executive and Director roles, I have kept hearing complaints about the ‘soggy middle’ of the organisation. Now whilst from one perspective, it is entirely understandable that senior managers and Chief Executives will sometimes have every right to complain bitterly about the resistance to change from the middle of the organisation, I’ve found that this pattern is just as likely to arise from the minimal, or more commonly ‘total absence’ of any meaningful career development initiatives.

Despite their best endeavours, it is clear that talent too often ends up just sitting there – lacking confidence, under-utilised, under-motivated, and simply not having a framework, model, methodology or even just the plain encouragement to proactively seek career progression at middle management level. Why?

Take local government as a case in point. A whole host of reasons, but to take just one issue that began to emerge following the move to a Cabinet model of governance, there would appear to be fewer opportunities to present formally to and/or work with elected Councillors, or work directly at the political interface. The reality is that the ‘jump’ to senior manager roles in terms of the skills and experience needed to be a senior manager has never been greater, and quite frankly, there are increasingly limited opportunities to gain them.

Almost inevitably, whatever the organisation or sector, rising stars or those with ambition are faced with little choice but to leave and join another organisation in order to climb the ladder. This lack of investment in staff, and the consequent ‘bleeding’ of frustrated talent is incredibly wasteful – and all too often at total variance to the proclaimed values and beliefs of the organisation.

There are a variety of obvious and simple initiatives that employers can undertake to help staff gain the skills and confidence they need to move upwards. The provision of mentors can be an effective means of identifying the barriers (personal or organisational) and developing solutions to overcome them. Being mentored by a more senior colleague who has had to deal with and overcome these issues themselves can be truly ‘inspirational’ in its impact. Shadowing is another excellent way to see how things are done at the top. It seems to be an easy win if every Chief Executive and Director allowed one of their middle managers to shadow them for a day a week, for this would surely provide valuable and above all, practical insights into what it takes to be a leader and the skills needed to operate at a strategic level. Secondments, both within the organisation and externally would also help broaden middle managers’ skills and can show them how things are done differently.

The middle managers of today are the leaders of tomorrow. From those I’ve met, the raw and latent talent, enthusiasm and skills would certainly seem to be there – so maybe employers should not be quite so quick to brand all the middles of their organisations as ‘soggy’ but instead provide the development focus to create their leaders of the future.

Hamish Davidson is Chairman & Senior Partner of Davidson & Partners. He is also Chairman of Entrepreneurs in Action, Iris Consulting and MJI Business Solutions.

M: 07932 698807


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