Managing middle-manager career paths

Participants at a lunch for Chief HR Officers held at FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance in London discuss challenges facing the HR community to support middle management career progression
Jun 26, 2018

Key takeaways:

  • Hierarchies based on pay and job titles encourage middle managers to take on unsuitable promotions. A more flexible view of success is needed.
  • Well-planned career breaks let staff pick up fresh skills and insights while those who fill the temporary vacancy also gain valuable experience.
  • Talented staff who want to start their own ventures should be supported or offered entrepreneurial-style opportunities within the organisation.
  • Companies must research why talent, especially senior women, leave jobs, and then devise retention strategies that actually work.
  • When it comes to redundancies, HR managers are urged to ‘do it right!’ No employee should feel unfairly treated.

The traditional ‘winner takes all’ view of competition for the C-Suite has given way to more flexible thinking about managing middle management. Such issues as career longevity, flexible working, flatter organisations, and the very notion of seniority were among many subjects discussed by an expert panel* and around 40 HR professionals, consultants and FT journalists at a Chief HR officers lunch at the Financial Times. Companies are looking to help middle managers transition into new roles through coaching, mentoring and training in ways that benefit employer, employee, and even ex-employee. Below are some of the highlights of these discussions.

‘Up or out’. The traditional ‘up or out’ perception of career—in which only the toughest and most talented make it to the top—is an ill-fitting model for today’s multi-generational and transitory workforce. Yet companies continue work within strict hierarchies. Recent large-scale, middle management redundancies have only re-enforced such assumptions. Those who survive the cull might gain a ‘clearer line of sight’ to higher ranks. But ‘delayering’ can make it harder for managers to leap to the next level, and determine who is, and is not, destined for the top. For those unlikely to get there, companies can help them develop resilience against disappointment.

Major downsizing is a blunt tool. Often, excellent staff are lost. HR can try to mitigate this by maintaining contact with former employees, for example through social networks such as LinkedIn. Formalising this is ‘a big ask’ says one HR leader, especially when CHROs have so much else on their plates. But another participant urged HR managers to ‘do it right!’ There is no reason why any employee should leave on bad terms or feel that they have been unfairly treated.

Pulling rank. The notion of seniority is also being challenged. For starters, many divisional team leaders do not want to be CEO or to take on heavy new responsibilities. Their management skills are already rare and essential to corporate success. Yet as long as the company hierarchy is structured around higher pay and prestigious job titles, middle managers will continue to seek the next promotion regardless of its suitability. Job titles that start with ‘deputy’ or ‘vice’ suggest roles that are intermediate rather than desirable in themselves. Similarly, ‘senior’ positions aren’t always the most critical to a company’s success, despite enjoying higher pay and status. Success needn’t be all about getting to the top. Nor is money and rank always the reward most sought—non-monetary rewards such as flexible working, time off and career breaks can be more enticing. Some experimental companies have tested traditional assumptions by eliminating hierarchy, removing formal titles, and by voting for their leaders.

Career breaks. The career break can last  months or years. Usually associated with maternity leave or studying for an MBA, breaks can involve secondments or just unspecified time off with or without pay. Career breaks are viewed increasingly positively, especially for those in their 40’s and 50’s, as a means to pick up fresh skills and insights. Re-integrating ‘boomerang’ employees, however, requires transparency, trust and planning. The returning employee shouldn’t fear for his or her job and should be able to find roles that fit their new experience. Meanwhile, other staff can gain valuable experience by filling the temporary vacancy.

Starting again. Inevitably, those with the right attitude and skills will still want to leave their jobs. The HR challenge is to keep them within the company’s orbit (if not on the payroll) and even a pathway back into the organisation. Rather than seeing such leavers as disloyal, new strategies are needed to harness their career goals in more creative ways. For example, many leavers want to start their own operation. The company can help (perhaps becoming a customer) or create a less risky, entrepreneurial-style opportunity within the organisation. ‘Attrition’ need not be a negative indicator if companies keep in contact or track ex-employees’ career moves.

The overlooked. Not all voluntarily departures are happy experiences. Many occur because executives feel opportunities have been closed off. The recent gender pay furor has focused attention on why talented people, especially women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, leave executive roles—and it’s not about maternity. More research is needed to ascertain whether well-intended retention initiatives such as mentoring, unconscious bias training, returnships and positive discrimination really work in practice.

Chief HR Officers’ lunch panellists:

  • Michael Skapinker, Financial Times Contributing Editor and Columnist, and Executive Editor of FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance
  • Pilita Clark, FT Associate Editor and Business Columnist
  • Candice Cross, Group Head of Diversity and Inclusion Culture, BT
  • Anton Fishman, Organisational Consultant and Managing Partner, Fishman & Partners

The event was held in partnership with FT’s 125 Senior Executive Forum


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