Research

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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Tuesday 08 May 2012
Are middle managers left behind by UK business?

Are middle managers left behind by UK business?

Put the executives to one side for a second, we believe that the heart of the UK economic recovery will be driven from the engine room of our organisations and this is in the hands of the often underrated and undervalued 'middle'. In many organisations, middle managers act as the crucial filter between the company's strategy and the day-to-day operational demands required to deliver that strategy.

Relationships between middle managers and their direct reports can make or break employee productivity, satisfaction and retention. Yet, they appear to be an under-represented group in research to date, which has focused on leaders, future leaders or new graduates. This is interesting, given the leader alone may account for just 5% of a firm's performance.

It is for these reasons that Ashridge decided to research the learning experiences and needs of middle managers across the UK. The research revealed that these managers are being squeezed and many are missing out on the key development that they need due to a lack of time, job pressures and financial constraints.

Hamish Scott, programme director, Ashridge Business School, said: "If middle managers are working in organisations that say they support their learning and development, yet only half of them are given time to learn, there is a real business issue here."

Middle managers are the heartland for many of our programmes at Ashridge Business School, therefore it is important that we improve our understanding of how middle managers learn, both on-the-job (informal development) and within the physical or virtual classroom (formal development), and how we might better support these development experiences and needs.

Research results show that formal learning is being overlooked with 'time poor' middle managers learning as they go, with respondents citing experiences such as stretch assignments, giving and receiving feedback and managing difficult conversations as key self-development experiences. As people progress through their careers, formal learning becomes more important, with respondents saying external short courses and peer discussion and support are seen as being more helpful.

At early stages of career development, the top three most effective learning experiences are perceived as being on-the-job development, shadowing an experienced person and external short courses.

Important self-development experiences for the managers surveyed were anchored in people management, rather than core professional skills. The top five self-development experiences were:

  • Stretch assignments or working under pressure
  • Giving / receiving feedback
  • Leading / managing people
  • Short courses / in-company programmes / professional training / formal qualifications
  • Taking on a new project / role / stepping up.

Scott added: "All too often the focus is on senior leaders and future leaders when it comes to development. The research showed that middle managers value formal learning, as it provides personal insight as well as building confidence and developing skills such as people management, academic, technical and business skills -- but in reality these needs are not being met.

"We need to get the middle moving, inspired and fulfilled; this means investing in people development to equip them with the skills to do their job and keep UK business running smoothly. What organisations are missing is their need to invest in its whole workforce and not use middle management as a stepping stone position."

Facts and figures

The research shows that 73% of middle managers say that they work in organisations that - support learning and development. However, only - half (53%) are actually given sufficient time for learning -- and a quarter (25%) say professional development is seen as luxury in their organisation. The research also shows that over a third have current training needs in leadership (37%), people management (36%), with a further 20% requiring development in strategy (21%) and influencing (20%) respectively.

Although the majority (78%) of managers have had discussions about their own development needs within the past 12 months and 77% have personal development plans in place, 80% say that they need to drive their career development themselves -- only 24% of middle managers have a mentor, career or life coach, but 65% would like one.

The enquiry comprised two phases:

Stage one: 16-item survey, which was developed at Ashridge and then distributed online to middle managers across the UK by a third party research organisation. Survey responses were then collected and analysed at Ashridge.

Stage two: Seven case studies, written at Ashridge following semi-structured depth interviews with middle managers.

• There were 569 survey respondents in total - 77% male, 23% female.

• Respondents were based all over the UK, but predominantly from London and the South of England (51%).

• 66% of respondents classified themselves as working in middle management and 34% in first-line management.

• Respondents were experienced middle managers (24% had over 30 years of work experience). Over a third were aged 31 - 40, with a further third aged 41 - 50.

Amy Armstrong, Research Fellow, Ashridge Business School