The Mid-level Gap


No, I’m not talking retail, I’m talking about the development gap that exists somewhere around Middle Management and Director level professionals. Most Executive-level employees will tell you that there just doesn’t seem to be enough good leaders out there to take over executive functions yet there seems to be a void in development activity for the next level of leaders. And I think the problem is two-fold.

The Content Problem

Entry level managers have access to all sorts of developmental opportunities – management classes, project management classes, priority management classes, meeting management classes, decision-making classes, problem solving classes, the list goes on.  And relatively, the developmental classes are fairly inexpensive for the gains received.

Executives, too, have a fair share of options. Most of which focus on coaching and specific developmental mentors or business strategy driven development. There are Executive MBA programs and senior leadership retreats reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Typically, a good executive coach will cost you close to or over $10k as it is.

Mid-level managers (MLMs) or Director level employees, however, seem to experience a gap in the availability of options. While some (and I mean, very few) have already taken some of the entry-level classes (some need to go back in my opinion) most of the training that MLMs or Directors are aware of target towards those entry-level employees. Or at least that is the perception, which brings me to the next hurdle.

The Perception Problem

Most MLMs and Directors think they are doing a good job, but most of their employees don’t. A number of studies have shown this perception gap in management performance and yet, many MLMs and Directors hold fast to the belief that training is something for their employees, not them.  Oddly enough, this is the group many 360 assessment instruments are designed towards…yet, very few are used.  It is complete ignorance, or is it fear of the answer?  I suppose that answer depends on the person but one thing is true, the more classes I teach of supervisory basics, the more I hear people say “my bosses should take this class.”

The Incentive Problem

At most organizations, there is just no incentive for people to develop themselves. And this is a universal once you get past individual contributor level. While companies profess the value of promoting internally, it happens less than 50% of the time. So the odds are actually against you getting promoted over an external hire. While many companies will make a training course or two mandatory, taking more does not gain you favor or increase your bonus or raise at the end of the year. With the stress of doing more with less in today’s workplace, most managers (unless there is some direct corollary to their status or pay) will opt to not spend half a day or longer learning to do their jobs better. The benefit of doing so is just too far off of people’s radar to make it a priority.

The Budget Control Problem

The point at which most managers become aware and responsible for their total annual budgets is right around MLM or Director level. This is often the first time employees are also judged on whether they come under budget or go over. And easy thing to always cut is self-development, especially given the reasons above. And most upper level development interventions such as coaching 360 assessments, conferences, retreats, are fairly expensive, sometimes $10k and up.  Which is often 10% or more of a MLMs/Director’s salary. So the developmental dollars are spent developing others (if at all.)

The Cost of the Gap

The ultimate cost of all these factors is a serious talent gap that companies are experiencing…and paying through the nose for. Not only in soft costs but in recruiting effort and hiring bonuses for people with specific experience. It also is a contributing factor to paradox of high unemployment but a talent shortage.  So while millions are out of work, most companies have positions that are nearly impossible to fill (despite the hundred of applicants).  And part of that problem goes back to the budget issue, most companies are not actively developing people at middle levels. In the past few companies I have worked with I would estimate 80% of talent development budget is spent on entry-level and individual contributor level roles, 10% on line-supervisor roles, and perhaps another 5-9% on senior leadership.  And I may actually be generous to say that 2% is being spent on mid-level development. In fact, the last few companies I worked with had none, nothing, ZERO focus on mid-level development. And they were losing talent left and right, though sadly, no one seemed to attribute the reasons to their own doing (see Attrition and the Fundamental Attribution Error)

Though it would be easy to point to the content gap, the larger problems are the self-perception and budget issues. No one is assuming responsibility for the active development of mid-level managers or directors and, left to their own initiative, most will never seek development as a priority. The budget issue comes into play when searching for content. Sadly, while there is content out there, most mid-level managers or directors, do not think they are worth the cost. More troubling still is that many executives do not see the value either. When a talented mid-level manager desires a $10 development plan for the year, it is received with a great deal of scrutiny. However, when an outside recruitment firm is paid a $10k commission for a replacement hire, no one seems to give it more than a shrug.

Conclusion

Directors and mid-level managers need to get rid of the notion that they don’t need developing and that it is not a priority. Senior leadership needs to take a more active role in development and succession planning and not expect people will seek out their own development. Companies need to face the reality that they are the cause for the talent gap and stop investing in an external hires potential, and instead, redirect that effort and money to develop the internal potential and talent. Far too many good people are leaving organizations simply because the company chooses to pay for someone’s stellar resume and fast talking during interviews, rather than developing the talent within. Integrating talent development, succession planning, and employee engagement can save organizations much more money than buying talent is costing them…both short-term and long-term.

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