In a Weak Market, Laid-Off Middle Managers With Strongest Skills Will Be Most Successful

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Middle managers have been among employees most deeply affected by recent layoffs, and they face difficult competition in becoming re-employed. In addition to fewer job openings for them, only those middle managers with the strongest skills — who are ready now to assume higher-level management responsibilities — will be most successful, according to ClearRock, an outplacement and executive coaching firm.

In the shorter term, there will be fewer job openings for middle managers as overall hiring remains weak. “Companies that hire middle managers want them to possess skills one or two management levels above those of a traditional manager or director. Middle managers may be expected to do more than their usual roles, and be called on to fill the shoes of higher-level executives who aren’t going to be replaced soon, if at all,” said Annie Stevens, managing partner with ClearRock.

However, when the job market was strong in 2006 and 2005, middle managers then were found lacking in critical skills such as strategic thinking, leadership, communication, developing direct reports and motivating people, according to ClearRock surveys of 168 organizations. A majority of companies said middle managers needed to improve their skills in strategic thinking (82 percent of respondents), leadership (78 percent), communication (62 percent), developing direct reports (60 percent) and motivating people (53 percent).

“In a good economy, these are higher management-level skills that middle managers would need in order to be promoted to the next level. But in the current tough job market, it is essential that they already have these skills — and more,” said Greg Gostanian, managing partner with ClearRock.

One-third of companies that ClearRock surveyed viewed their middle managers as unqualified to be promoted to the next level. Only 6 percent rated their middle managers as “very qualified.”

“The fact that five times as many companies rated their middle managers unqualified for promotion as those that rated them very qualified illustrates the difficult challenge unemployed mid-level managers will have finding new jobs in this economy,” said Gostanian.

“During the past few years, many organizations shifted their focus to developing high-potential employees instead of their middle managers. Companies began offering high potentials coaching, mentoring and other development opportunities earlier in their careers. This trend is continuing in the recession as more companies retained those high potentials they identified as future leaders, and laid off middle managers,” said Stevens.

To help ensure their displaced managers have the skills required to successfully interview for and land jobs necessitating higher-level abilities, more employers are working with outplacement firms that have expertise in executive coaching and experience in sharpening the talents of top management.

ClearRock recommends that middle managers seeking re-employment be prepared to demonstrate they possess the following skills to potential employers:

  • Strategic thinking and vision. “Companies want middle managers who can contribute to developing the business plan for increasing revenue and profits, rather than just focusing on helping execute it through managing direct reports,” said Stevens.
  • Developing direct reports. “High-potential employees are the future of an organization, and employers want middle managers who can immediately begin to develop tomorrow’s leaders,” said Gostanian.
  • Motivating employees. “With budgets strained and monetary rewards such as raises and bonuses not as available as before, middle managers need to show a track record for motivating employees through nonmonetary methods, as well as results they achieved through these efforts,” said Stevens.
  • Developing team goals and priorities. “It is going to require a lot of teamwork to get businesses back to normal, so those middle managers who can showcase their records for team-building, goal-setting and prioritizing will have an advantage,” said Gostanian.
  • Communicating with direct reports, peers and upper management. “Middle managers need to have excellent communication skills and be able to use them to motivate direct reports, as well as to be a beneficial resource for colleagues, and to update their supervisors in the ways they prefer,” said Stevens.
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