Empowering the Secret Backbone of Your Business

Empowering the Secret Backbone of Your Business

"Middle management is a vital yet beleaguered role within organizations." (McKinsey Global Survey, published 2023)1

Recent studies2 show that middle managers often lack the development, empowerment, and appreciation they need, despite being the glue that holds everything together.

What’s your experience been? Are middle managers thought of and celebrated as the unsung heroes of your organization?

If you are a senior leader reading this newsletter, think about what needs to change to empower your middle managers.

If you are currently a middle manager, see if these findings and recommendations ring true for you. Be willing to approach your senior leader about what could improve for you and your peers who are managers.

My Personal Journey

As a former middle manager myself, I know firsthand what the role is like and how important it is. I remember when I was first promoted to a management role. I was excited, eager, ambitious - and a little scared.

When I got promoted to Systems Manager, I had responsibility for 5 people. And the IT department was a big deal - an integral part of the company’s growth from $11 million to over $100 million while I was there.

However, I never received formal training in people or soft skills. None. I had the technical skills, and I had plenty of vision for where the company and its systems needed to go. But I had zero training in managing people.

From that position, I was promoted two more times — all the way up to Senior IT Manager. But it wasn't until I was in line to be promoted to a director position that I finally started receiving essential soft skills training.

And when I did, it made such a difference. I felt more confident, and I started to recognize what each individual on my team needed from me.

I really enjoyed being in the middle of the organization - influencing my team while also influencing up to the senior leadership team, and helping execute the company’s strategy.


I really liked being a middle manager. Sure, there were days I wondered what it would be like to be at the top of the organization.

But I also realized that senior leadership positions came with more stress, more travel, and less time doing the project work. Because I didn’t want that at that time in my life, I chose to stay in the middle of the organization.

Micah with Target board LHMC square

I focused on influencing my team while also influencing up the organization to the senior leadership team and helping execute the company’s strategy.

The Unsung Heroes of Your Organization

If we want our businesses to thrive, we need to start empowering our middle managers. After all, think about all the key efforts they help lead:

  • Coach and develop your employee

  • Lead and manage key projects

  • Keep your company's core values alive

  • Ensure that strategy is executed at the ground level

That’s why we need to focus on promoting people to management who have the temperament and the skills to actually do the most important job: manage people.

"Let's not just promote people because they were good at what they did; let's promote people because of what makes great managers."

Bryan Hancock, author, Power of the Middle


To go deeper, check out the book Power to the Middle by Schaninger, Hancock and Field.


Investing in Middle Managers

So, how can we tap into the full potential of middle managers?

It's simple: invest in them.

Give them the support, resources, and training they need to excel. Create separate career tracks for individual contributors and managers, and reward them for their expertise.

By using levers like salary, bonuses, stock or profit-sharing options, and challenging assignments, we can keep our superstar middle managers motivated and loyal.

Studies done through McKinsey show that “Promotions” only ranks fifth in what middle managers want as reward. I think companies would do well to find ways to reward performance without using promotion to another management level. It’s just not the right fit for many people.3

Screenshot 2024-05-06 at 11.54.30 AM

Real World, Firsthand Observations

Jen Evans, our newest consultant with D4, has seen this play out many times over her 15+ year career in training and development. What’s worse, often middle managers get promoted to senior leader positions without good soft skills training, and it only perpetuates the problem.

Without the soft skills training, and without being afforded the time to manage their people well, we are crippling the backbone of our organizations. Jen said that one of the best ways you can help strengthen it is to make sure time is allotted for managers to build the relationships needed to lead their people well.

Middle managers are not afforded time to build and strengthen team dynamics—their ​calendars look like a game of Tetris and have very little ‘white space’ to dedicate to the team or to the individual. Pair that with a span of control that is often not manageable, and you have a recipe for what I call ‘chaotic leadership’.

Jen Evans, Consultant at D4 Concepts

Five Ways to Strengthen Middle Manager Performance

Creating the right atmosphere for middle managers to be the "force multipliers" they are meant to be is not a simple or easy task. Here are five steps leaders and organizations can take to create more top-performing managers:

  1. Optimize the organization's 'spans' (the magic number of employees a manager can oversee to achieve optimal effectiveness and efficiency). Identify where managers are not set up to succeed and create healthier manager spans with the right number of direct reports.

  2. Reset manager roles. Conduct a thorough review of manager roles, automate rote tasks, ban unnecessary meetings, and eliminate bureaucratic work. Don’t bog them down with administrative tasks that keep them away from leading and managing their teams.

  3. Pivot to capability building. Define what a “win” looks like, clearly communicate the vision, and provide related upskilling.

  4. Drill down into manager experience. Spend some time increasing their purpose for your company, fostering inclusion, and offering development opportunities.

  5. Build in accountability mechanisms. Reinforce what great looks like and give middle managers continuous progress updates through performance management systems. 3

Obvious place to let you know about our own services here… 😃 If you need a way to train a manager with people skills, we have a new program called XCore Leadership.

It’s a new offering open to the public where you can send just 1 or 2 managers for training and coaching. Leaders will participate in a cohort of 24 people where they can learn together and support each other in community. First one starts in June. Check it out to see if it is something that could help you or one of your managers.

Last Thoughts

Here's the bottom line: your middle managers are an incredible resource who are often overlooked. By investing in their development, creating appropriate career tracks, and fostering a culture that optimizes their performance, you can unlock their full potential. Do that, and you’ll build a stronger, more resilient and effective organization.

Empowering middle managers,

Micah Ray

(1) www.springboard.com/blog/business/skills-gap-trends-2024

(2) www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/investing-in-middle-managers-pays-off-literally

(3) www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/stop-wasting-your-most-precious-resource-middle-managers

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