Middle Management, Suit Up!

A new Korn Ferry report offers key strategies to activate and empower middle management to foster a more effective and change-ready organization.

In soccer, the midfielders are known as “play makers,” connecting the defense and offense while quickly adapting to changing situations on the field. This high-traffic zone is susceptible to communication and balance mistakes, making midfielders crucial for team success. In business, middle managers are the midfielders—and the game can’t go on without them.

Middle management acts as the bridge between senior leaders and frontline employees, translating strategic directions into actionable plans and ensuring they are implemented effectively. Yet, as necessary as middle managers seem on paper, they are often overlooked or eliminated in organizational changes, ultimately hurting the agility and performance of the company.

Every level of leadership comes with its challenges, and middle managers are not immune. They often face increased responsibilities and limited resources, which can lead to burnout. Rather than removing middle managers because of these issues, organizations can better support middle management to strengthen their workforce in greater ways.

Korn Ferry’s Change-Ready Leader framework reimagines the pivotal role of middle managers—our corporate midfielders. It provides them with the tools and skills to fully realize their potential, making organizations more adaptable to change.

Instead of changing the roster, we need to shift the way we play the game. Here are five recommendations to activate and empower the middle of the organization:

  1. Avoid overstaffing middle management in the first place. Often, the middle of an organization faces overstaffing with outdated beliefs, such as the idea that the only way to advance is through promotion into managerial roles. But not all people are interested in managerial roles. Instead, establish agile and inclusive career systems to engage talent and optimize growth.
  2. Debunk middle management misconceptions. Middle management has often been unfairly associated with performing administrative tasks rather than engaging in strategic leadership. This stereotype hinders their true potential. Senior leaders can begin to treat them as strategic thought partners, exploring possible untapped talent and value. Invite middle managers to strategy meetings or ask for their thoughts on an idea.
  3. Invest in leadership development. Surveys have consistently found that employees often are promoted to managerial roles without adequate training. Unsurprisingly, managers lacking proper training struggle to lead effectively. To prevent and mitigate issues that stem from ineffective leadership, prioritize leadership development for middle managers and give them the best opportunity to succeed in their role.
  4. Break down silos and foster cross-functional networks.  Agile organizations thrive on interconnectedness. And a more collaborative and cooperative organization can be fostered among middle managers, leading to creative problem-solving and innovation. Connect middle managers to each other through mediums like regular manager meetings or live training sessions.
  5. Cultivate a shared mindset using a common framework. In any organization, individuals often hold various perspectives on how to react to changing situations. This difference in viewpoints can lead to unaligned efforts. Use a common framework to encourage everyone to approach challenges with a shared mindset and follow the same playbook.

The game is changing fast, and we need a playbook and players that can keep up. Like midfielders, the middle of the organization is a critical source of leadership, innovation, and performance. By embracing the potential of middle management, senior leaders can activate and empower their middle managers to thrive and drive organizational success in an agile world.

Download the Report