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The 2013 Best Companies for Leadership focus on middle managers – for good reason

Posted by Signe Spencer

Signe Spencer

The results of the 2013 Hay Group Best Companies for Leadership study have been released; you can see them here if you haven’t already. Once again, the list of the Top 20 companies reads like a who’s who of consistently competitive global enterprises.

The top-line finding of this year’s study is the dual focus of the best companies on innovation and operational excellence. This is no small feat, as the first is a fickle, uncertain process aimed at disrupting the status quo, while the second is all about maintaining consistency and minimizing disruptions. The ability of these organizations to balance such different priorities simultaneously is another example of “both-and” leadership – one of the consistent themes we’ve seen in our Best Company studies.

For me, though, another finding from this year’s study was every bit as intriguing.

Leading from the middle. This year’s study shows that the Best Companies place a significant emphasis on supporting and developing middle managers. Compared to all companies in the study, the Top 20 are:

  • 85 percent more likely to provide web-based self-study in leadership – and 60 percent more likely to offer lectures on leadership principles;
  • 82 percent more likely to encourage company-sponsored community or volunteer assignments;
  • 74 percent more likely to provide mentoring by a senior manager or executive;
  • 71 percent more likely to provide coaching by a trained internal coach;
  • 71 percent more likely to offer 360-degree feedback on leadership attributes, skills, and traits.

What’s more, each of these important development opportunities was offered by a majority of the companies in the Top 20. On average, in fact, these companies provided nine different leadership education or support activities for their middle managers – 50 percent more than all the companies in the study, and more than they offered their own senior managers.

What do these outstanding companies know about the value of supporting and enhancing leadership among middle managers? Watch a video >>

Productivity gains. Middle managers are responsible for much of the day-to-day heavy lifting that keeps a company on track. They lead the teams that manage key customers and accounts, develop and improve products and services, provide essential marketing and business functions, and keep operations moving smoothly.

Our research confirms what every employee knows: better leaders coax better performance. They consistently create a more positive organizational climate for their teams, which motivates the kind of voluntary, incremental effort that lifts productivity. In fact, our studies show that variations in climate account for about 30 percent of the variation in team performance.

By helping their workhorse middle managers become more effective leaders who inspire superior performance, companies reap the rewards of a more productive workforce.

A virtuous cycle of recruiting and retention. A well-organized and clearly focused leadership development program is also an important recruiting asset. Of course, in the current job market recruiting is easier for every business; jobs are simply too scarce for candidates to be as picky as they once were.

The top candidates, however, are still likely to have choices, and when you offer these high-potential applicants a leadership program they can aspire to early in their career, you provide an important incentive for them to choose your business.

Finally, we’ve all heard the expression that people join a company, but quit a manager, and it’s true. Bad managers lose good people. The reverse is also true: good managers lose fewer people. They provide their employees with motivation and support, encourage their strengths and help them work on their weaknesses, and ultimately get more people promoted into more rewarding positions.

So a strong leadership development program for middle managers helps businesses improve productivity, recruit better candidates and retain more strong performers. That, in turn, creates a stronger internal pipeline for senior leadership roles, and internally recruited senior leaders have a better record of success than those recruited from the outside.

By my count, that’s a win-win-win-win proposition.


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