The Missing Middle

The project explored the learning experiences of middle managers in the UK. Middle managers are an important part of any organisation, acting as a crucial filter between day-to-day operational demands and the board’s strategy. Relationships between middle managers and their direct reports can make or break an employee’s motivation, productivity, satisfaction and retention. Yet middle managers 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 (Schoar 2011).

Middle managers are the heartland for Open Enrolment Programmes at Ashridge, 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.

The enquiry comprised two phases:

  • Stage one: 16-item survey, which was developed at Ashridge and then distributed online to 569 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 depth interviews with middle managers.

Key findings:

  • Despite 78% of managers having had discussions about their own development needs within the past 12 months, 80% of them say that they need to drive their career development themselves.
  • Lack of time, job pressures and financial constraints are the three biggest barriers to learning.
  • Short courses (e.g. Open Enrolment Programmes) are seen as being helpful throughout middle managers’ careers.
  • Communication and presentation skills are raised by middle managers as an important area for development.
  • Few middle managers have a personal coach (24%) but the majority of managers would like one (65%).
  • Stretch assignments; giving and receiving feedback; leading and managing people are most important self-development experiences at work with an increased level of self-awareness being particularly tied to these experiences.
  • Working with inspiring role models is seen to be an important part of middle managers’ development.
  • 82% of people said that internal training programmes were used more often in their organisations than external programmes. The main reasons for this were cost and the ability to tailor internal training to the needs and challenges of their particular organisation.
  • Respondents outlined books, e-learning and formal qualifications as the three least effective learning experiences in their careers to date.

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