Real Leaders

Great Companies Build Middle Leadership. Here’s Why

Great middle leaders motivate not only their team but others around them too. They do this by communicating purpose, thinking broadly to escape the organizational silos, and behave inclusively. Hiring for middle leadership is a smart strategy and motivates others. Great companies, however, deliberately build a culture of middle leaders.

A company wins the hearts and minds of its employees and customers based on the middle of the organization. A company drives the day to day of everything — from products, customers, support and sales and middle leadership deals with challenges, mistakes, and the surprises in the trenches.

As you think about building a world-class organization, it’s essential to understand, focus on, and measure, the concept of “middle leadership.” It’s a well-accepted fact that culture always trumps strategy when it comes to building a world-class global company and that becoming tangled in bureaucratic duties will slow a company down and erode the culture. To help avoid the ill-fate of a stale and slow-moving company, it’s vital to forward-hire and invest in the middle layer of your organization — as it will ultimately determine the fate of your business. 

So how do you know when to hire for management skills versus hiring for leadership? All companies need a mixture of both. Understanding how these skills are different and when the middle of your organization needs more leadership, rather than just management, is one of the keys to growth. We commonly use the phrase “middle management” but have you ever heard of “middle leadership”?  Nope. In part, because we tend to reserve the leadership label for senior executive hires. We argue that a consistent culture of middle leadership is essential to sustain corporate growth.

An organization may have great executive leadership, but ultimately, it rests on the abilities of the broader organization. Having leadership at every level is critical to breaking down the organizational silos in day to day challenges. Without this, corporate growth is slower, with more internal friction; often oblivious to market opportunities. 

To fill the missing link between your company top leadership and the middle layer of the organization, you must reassess the hiring practices at your company. Evaluate what policies are in place when it comes to the intake of new employees and start to think about it in a specific, measurable way.

Ask yourself what types of interview questions should be added to HR recruiting strategies. Consider incorporating leadership aptitude tests to help ensure that new hires have the potential to help bridge the gap between management and leadership — to break down the silos. A bureaucratic, slow-moving culture is one of the most crippling afflictions a company can face. Middle leadership has the opportunity to spot failed communications between teams, missed hand-offs within the customer experience, and suggest new products. Identifying the attributes and skills of middle management, that will be used to pivot leadership-minded problem-solving, is a crucial component of building a company culture that thrives and is future proof.

One of the critical roles of the board is to set the “tone at the top” and to look at how company culture is affecting the organization. One of the things a board can look at specifically, as part of an ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) framework, is to examine their organizational development. How are they forward building middle management? What programs are available to grow middle managers from doers to leaders? It’s well worth committing time and resources toward creating a dedicated set of programs that teach leadership skills. This creates a robust middle layer vs. one that is bureaucratic and unresponsive.

Great middle leaders see opportunities in friction and initiate action to fix it. Middle managers work the plan, report, and explain. This is valuable, but it won’t carry your culture and company forward. It’s vital to align your middle leadership with the company’s overall purpose and mission, to be sure that your vision is being implemented across all levels.

Leaders deal with the unknown, and are willing to admit they don’t have all the answers. They seek input from others to understand the important, yet not-so-obvious trends. These skills are needed at the top of an organization and also within the everyday interactions across an entire organization. 

Great middle leaders motivate their team and others around them, too. This is accomplished by communicating purpose, thinking broadly to escape organizational silos, and behaving inclusively. Hiring for middle leadership is smart and motivates others, in part, because leaders invest in people.  Good companies might have both managers and leaders by chance, but great companies deliberately build a culture of middle leaders.

Betsy Atkins is CEO and founder of Baja Corporation and author of Be Board Ready. She currently sits on the boards of Wynn Resorts, SL Green Realty, Schneider Electric, and Volvo Cars.

Lisa Dallmer is an experienced Chief Operating Officer in financial services and technology.  Currently SVP of Business operations at Delphix, previously she was COO of BlackRock’s Global Technology & Operations and COO for NYSE Euronext.

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