iStock_000020656499_ExtraSmallEnter any car dealership and chances are that you’re quickly dazzled by the shiny models on display. The chrome glistens. The leather entices with that brand new smell we all love. The vivid reds convey excitement and the metallic neutrals exude elegance and success.

Unless you are a true car aficionado, you probably won’t give the engine much thought. In fact, most buyers won’t even bother to look under the hood. But beyond the glitz andsparkling alloy wheels, the engine is the most vital part of the car. Without it, you won’t go anywhere. The same can be said for the mid-level managers (MM). An organization that lacks strong MMs won’t get very far.

Why MMs Are More Important than Ever

A strong management team is essential to a successful organization. Culling middle management from within the company yields high-impact results. Yet in reality, MMs are often hired from outside. Why? I’m not sure. Developing staff from within must seem more daunting than hiring someone from the outside with, in theory, the right skillset. The more I think about it, this approach is silly. When was the last time you highlighted your shortcomings on your resume? Seems like an unfair comparison, doesn’t it?

Making a commitment to develop MMs from within not only underscores the corporate philosophy, branding and culture but also boosts morale and motivation by reinforcing the values the company rewards – a visualization of personal future success. Employees naturally see their future career opportunities within the company, unless they do not share the same vision.

Where Do You Start?

When developing MMs, technical skills alone are not enough – yet that’s how MMs identify their own success. MMs must be given the opportunity to expand beyond their technical abilities, learn new methods and grow beyond their current capabilities. If you’re a manager responsible for MMs, focus on helping them:

Exercise diplomacy. Middles are well-known for their ability to appease others, yet often defer to senior managers during difficult situations. Help MMs by exploring alternatives and developing an approach that works for that MM; keeping in mind your approach may – or may not – be natural or comfortable to the MM.
Be adaptable. Middles, by nature, must be flexible since they can be overlooked, discounted, bumped into a new role at whim or expected to shoulder unrealistic burdens. Help Middles adapt by understanding how they see the situation. Allow them to borrow your knowledge rather than just telling them what to do.
Look at the big picture. The most successful MMs explore all aspects of a problem and look at all potential solutions before implementing a plan. This ability to think strategically is essential to a strong MM, yet many need permission to think so broadly.
Bring out the best in your team. A good MM allows the team to participate in decisions then rise to the occasion and meet/exceed their expectations. Good MMs are enablers, but for time efficiency we often skip the enabling process. Create a safe environment where teams can develop ideas, act upon them and then follow up understand the effectiveness of their decision-making. Growing together creates solidarity and trust – a cornerstone of teams that excel.
Focus on results. In the same vein as ego, a strong MM does what it takes to achieve the results that align with corporate objectives. Sometimes, that means setting aside agendas or ideas about how the results will be attained. Let others figure out the how. Who knows, you might learn something new.

Why Bother?

While it is important for MMs to be proactive within their positions, it behooves the organization to be just as hands-on in ensuring that they have a strong middle management team. Why? The reasons are plenty:

Reduce costs. Workplace stress and burn out costs organizations more than $300 billion annually in absenteeism, health care and stress-reduction programs, according to 2004 New York Times article. Bolster your mid-section and you’ll see a boost in your bottom line.
Improve morale. An inefficient, unstable workplace only compounds the duress MMs face. When MMs are valued and supported, they are better equipped to ensure that their employees are happy and well-cared for, which improves morale across the organization.
Higher productivity. Happy workers are busy workers. Better morale among MMs and workers translates into greater productivity.
Better employee retention. Successful MMs retain loyal employees. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23.7% of U.S. workers voluntarily left their jobs in 2006. As a result, direct replacement costs on a departed employee can reach as high as 50-60% of his/her annual salary, according to a Society of Human Resource Management report. What’s more, strong MMs also attract highly qualified employees who desire to work in a positive, successful environment.