In a 2013 Harvard Business Publishing white paper, Danger in the Middle, Robert McKinney, Michele McMahon, and Peter Walsh paint a picture of a new workplace. The authors focus their observations on middle managers—such as program managers, marketing managers, and engineering directors — because the importance of these managers has exploded in recent years. With fewer management layers in today’s organizations, middle managers are now often responsible for succeeding on projects that make or break strategic business goals. However, they must lead these projects — that is, achieve change — with fewer direct reports, less money, and less time, not to mention less job security.
Turnover is ripe in this middle manager segment, and those who do stay with their firms for the long haul may find themselves with few opportunities for development. For years, firms have invested heavily in training for senior executives and new managers but relatively little for midlevel managers. And even when available, middle management development programs often miss the mark: that same Harvard Business Publishing paper showed that only 28 percent of organizations felt their development programs met the changing needs of middle managers.
To reverse the trend, organizations need to support and develop middle managers so they can learn to become a new breed of leader – a change leader who knows how to connect, exercise influence, foster trust, and build commitment to a common purpose among far-flung work teams. In other words, say McKinney, McMahon, and Walsh, organizations must connect leadership development to today’s real-life management challenges.