The Power of Middle Management

Pretend we are playing Jeopardy.

$24.5 billion is the answer to what question?

{cue game show theme music}

Alex, what is on average the amount organizations spend on leadership development training in the U.S. alone.

$24.5 billion.

The majority of this spending is allocated to senior leaders and their teams, HIPOs (high potential talent), and sales teams. Surprisingly, less than 25% of leadership development is invested in the middle layer of management.

But what about the middle?

While the term middle management is perhaps outdated- there are dozens of organizational structures ranging from the most layered hierarchy to the controversial holacracy- the existence and functions of the mid-level remain. By under-investing in leadership development for this middle layer, we think organizations are missing an important piece of the puzzle and greatly underestimating the power of the middle to lead organizational change and drive performance success. We don’t seem to be alone in holding this perspective.  Organizations like Chief Learning Officer (CLO) and research done by Korn Ferry understand it is critical that organizations go deep into the talent pipeline to create sustainable leader development. They found that “mid level leaders need significant development; this group will have the biggest effect on execution and implementation of new strategies.”

Brent Gleeson, contributor to Forbes and founder of TalkingPoint Leadership, offers similar advice. “In today’s more volatile, uncertain and ambiguous business battlefield, decentralized controls and leadership through networks of people at all levels is imperative for success. So that means that if companies really want to move more quickly, have a flatter structure and develop emerging leaders from within, a significant amount of time must be spent teaching team members how to lead.”

Yes, it’s true that leadership begins at the top and that a company’s culture is largely set through the behaviors and modeling of its senior leaders, but the role of middle managers is far more essential to an organization’s success than one might imagine.

Middle managers hold the power of execution.

They are instrumental in:

  • Driving organizational change – middle managers get vision and direction from senior leadership and are held accountable for putting the vision into action through their direct reports.
  • Bringing culture to life – employees at every level look to their managers to role model the behaviors and norms that exemplify the culture defined and desired by senior leadership.
  • Monitoring progress and performance – middle management is responsible for performance management, and are tasked with both managing up and down.
  • Making sh*t happen – let’s face it, the middle is where all of the action happens, and mid-level leaders are mostly evaluated on their ability to drive the ball over the goal line.

Here’s the even greater reality that is not often talked about:

According to, “when properly equipped, engaged and empowered, middle managers enhance overall performance: productivity, customer and employee retention, and team alignment to company mission and strategic goals. But the opposite is also true: the underperformance and unhappiness of middle managers typically trickle down, resulting in loss of productivity, lower morale, increased attrition or all of the above.”

When middle managers are provided with meaningful, motivating leadership development, offered aspirational career planning, and given the support to lead through their strengths, their impact on the organization and its bottom line is exponential.

Through our work over the past decade, we have found that middle managers often feel resistant, disempowered and unheard.  When this happens, their ability to execute is compromised. Unfortunately, the statistics on leadership development spending don’t reflect a priority or emphasis on supporting them. As we look to the future, perhaps the question you must ask yourself is: given the importance of this middle layer of leadership, are your leadership development resources being allocated most effectively for success?


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