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Solving the talent challenge by unlocking the frozen middle

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Mike Straw of Achieve Breakthrough says HR needs to focus on energising the middle management, not just look outside for new talent.

With growth coming back into the economy, companies are looking to take advantage of better conditions and HR functions are under pressure to meet the talent needs of their organisation.

Higher employment levels combined with continuing skills shortages across many sectors mean that it is very much a job seeker’s market; the latest data from the Office for National Statistics found that wages had grown by 2.9%.  The combined result is that it is becoming both harder and more expensive for companies to find the talent that they need.

But are many companies – and HR departments – missing a trick?  Of course every organisation needs to keep a regular flow of new recruits into the business, to keep the gene pool fresh and stimulate new ideas.

Yet I would argue that often this recruitment mantra blinds companies to the wealth of talent that they already possess inside their own ranks – all too often trapped within what I call the “frozen middle”.

Many organisations, particularly large ones, have significant numbers of middle managers.  In many ways, they are the wheel that helps the cogs of the company to turn.  It is their job to help execute strategy – putting the company’s vision and goals into practice.  Take the middle management away, and no organisation could operate effectively.  And when their potential is optimised, in my experience they can make a decisive difference to a company’s performance and productivity.

Often however, these middle layers are taken for granted.  Their skills and importance may be appreciated in theory, but leadership does not do enough to energise and inspire them to raise their performance and help the organisation break through to new levels of achievement.

So I believe that HR together with senior leadership needs to do more to fully bring the middle management layer on board and working to maximum potential.  If they do this, the company’s reliance on recruiting skills from the external market will be reduced at the same time.

The effects can be transformative. I have seen instances of managers pushing the boundaries of what is perceived to be achievable and producing results such as employee engagement moving from 60% to 85%, a 20% uplift in sales or a 50% manufacturing production increase.

How can this be done?  In my experience, there are four key steps:

  • Retrain the middle management on what they believe it is possible to accomplish.  By raising their aspirations and inspiring them to be bolder, a new mindset can start to be born.
  • Help them blow up conventional wisdom and assumptions. By encouraging open discussion, in which anything can be challenged, the middle layers can start to look with fresh eyes at ways of working.
  • Help them see that they can be accountable for delivering on things that are missing and essential. By giving them a sense of empowerment to change things, they will feel a new level of engagement and commitment.
  • Open conversations about the future they want to build. Encourage discussion of the place everyone wants to get to and help to create.

This is not easy to do.  It takes time and commitment, both from HR and from senior leadership, who must be prepared to fully engage with the programme and give it their genuine personal input.  Above all, leadership needs to see that what they are there for is not to control and manage people, but to unblock their potential and creativity – a vital shift in mindset.

Creating the right environment can produce some astonishing results.  It can lead to an environment characterised by genuine innovation, the constant and productive challenging of the way things have always been done, and new collaborations across the business.

HR can drive this transformation.  Then they’ll find that the answer to the talent challenge lies as much within the organisation as outside it.  Unfreezing the middle can unleash a new energy throughout the business and bring a whole new set of rewards.

Mike Straw

By Mike Straw

Mike Straw is the CEO of Achieve Breakthrough

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