Filling middle manager skills gaps


Much has been written about our country’s pervasive skills gap:  the gulf between the existing and growing need for skilled and technical labour and our economy’s chronically high unemployment. Less advertised but equally as important is the skills gap within a major segment of our workforce — middle managers.  For many growth-focused firms this middle manager gap is a barrier to higher productivity, increased innovation, and faster execution.   Companies that can address these shortfalls with new educational approaches and tactics can dramatically improve their chances of long-term success.

Low-level skills shortages are not the only human-capital issue plaguing employers.  Skills deficiencies among middle managers — those white-collar, knowledge workers — is a significant and hidden drag on organizational performance. While hard, economic data on this problem is difficult to find, anecdotal feedback from dozens of firms is worrisome.   The knowledge gap ranges from basic skills to advanced thinking.  If workers are under the age of 40, there is a good chance they  lack essential writing, presentation and quantitative skills (e.g., basic statistics, finance).  Beyond these core skills, many middle managers have difficulty with important activities like synthesizing disparate pieces of information, undertaking financial modelling or structuring a business case.  Moreover, talent deficiencies are not limited to analytics or communicating.  Project execution and collaboration competencies are also in short supply.

The scale and needs of the middle manager layer amplifies cost and compromises outputs (productivity and thinking).  Because middle managers are numerous and expensive, their skills deficiencies will have a large and negative impact on financial and operational performance. Moreover, talent shortfalls hinder middle managers from problem solving, fostering innovation, and leading change, three critical ingredients for dynamic and globally oriented enterprises.

This issue is expected to get worse.  “The pressure on middle managers to perform is only going to increase due to population demographics,” according to David Maddocks, president of WorkSmart Education, a provider of eLearning programs to banks.  “Organizations are facing a huge loss in institutional knowledge with baby boomers retiring, and there are fewer entry-level employees coming into the workforce.  This means the talent pool will shrink, forcing labour costs higher.”  Furthermore, the talent gulf may not be easy to close.  The kinds of skills needed by employers have changed from incremental new ones that can easily be learned on the job to those that require advanced technical and “soft” skills (in problem solving, communication, teamwork, and leadership, etc.) which cannot easily be learned in a workplace.

In the short-term, filling the gap will remain the responsibility of employers.  Sending more people for MBAs won’t solve this problem, so what can companies do?

Understand the problem

Leadership needs to grasp what and where the talent gaps are, and why they occur.  In large companies, this is an onerous task.  The analytical process should be focused towards more manageable lines of business, divisions or departments.  Talent assessments should be holistic if possible, based on existing performance appraisal processes, benchmarking and online tests.

Address strategically

Training can no longer be approached in an ad hoc fashion driven by employee desires.  Firms need to prioritize education according to business needs and make ongoing skill development a part of career building.  These initiatives should focus on offering workers career pathways, not just skills for the initial job. This life cycle approach can begin with running internships or cooperative degree programs for university or college grads.  This “try before we buy” approach allows many employers to assess the skills, work ethic, and attitudes of prospective workers and to give them training tailored to a firm’s specific needs.  Furthermore, companies can optimize their talent-management strategies by tweaking their hiring practices (to focus more on capabilities) and through better retention strategies that minimize turnover of the most skilled managers.

Rethink education

Organizations need no longer rely on vanilla, push-based training methods.  New and improved educational programs combine cutting-edge content, experiential learning tools and ongoing measurement.  Online and classroom education can be integrated with opportunities to apply new concepts and skills in actual or simulated work settings — an approach proven to be the way adults learn best.  “What gets measured gets done, and its no different with education” says Maddocks, “Companies must make education a priority by holding each layer of management responsible for its connection to the business and successful implementation. As well, each layer has to get better at coaching the layer below it for results.”

Finally, expert and holistic knowledge is now a mouse-click away.  A variety of third-party educational providers assemble the expertise of leading schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton to develop online courses as well as web-based certificate programs.  And, our firm mines consulting learnings from dozens of companies to create unique, cross-discipline programs in strategic thinking, change management and ‘executing with excellence.’

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.


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