Move Away from ‘Fire Focus’ by Nurturing the Right Skills in Middle Managers

Editor’s Note: Peter Myers is the Senior Vice President of DDJ Myers. He facilitates professional development programs for executives and management teams, succession planning processes for boards and CEOs, as well as strategic planning engagements for credit unions nationwide. Here he discusses the importance of helping middle managers develop the right leadership skills.

Consider this simple, common example of how middle managers’ skills, traits, and orientation are shaped: A tactical need arises and a senior executive makes a request of the manager, who executes on that request. Check the box. Project completed.

Then another tactical need comes up, but this time, it is defined more as a problem. The executive’s request to fix the problem is laced with a greater sense of urgency, causing the manager to deprioritize other projects and “put out the fire.” Another box checked. Good job.

This pattern tends to accelerate and be repeated week in and week out, so that teams often end up complaining, “We’re so busy, running 100 miles per hour to get things done.” In DDJ Myers’ organizational development work, executive teams are often surprised to discover how much time they spend in this reactive mode.

This tendency cultivates and reinforces skill sets that are tactical and narrowly “fire” focused, rather than the strategic and collaborative competencies that so many leaders say they want to nurture in mid-level leaders and staff members. Bridging that gap is a substantial and relevant challenge, and it is represented in three key questions:

  • How can the environment best support the development of new strategic skills?
  • What are the right skills for strategic leaders to develop?
  • What (and who) needs to shift for these skills to be cultivated?

Let’s focus on the second question for the rest of this post. A simple answer to the second question is that the “right” skills are not uniform; each emerging leader needs a distinct skill set. To identify what those right skills are, have your mid-level talent work through a prescriptive set of conversations with their direct supervisors, senior executives outside of their functional hierarchy, and their executive coaches. After their own reflection, those leaders select a set of complementary set of skills to target for development. Through these conversations, they outline the specifics as to how each skill will manifest and describe its preferred impact. This planned skills development is documented in their Leadership Development Plan (LDP).

Through the LDP, all parties direct their supportive attention to an individual leader, provide feedback, and document and validate progress. The LDP captures their self-assessments of their current role and impact in the organization, professional goals, and desired future contributions, along with specific action plans for tangibly launching and guiding their development.

Through this iterative process, your next generation of leaders will develop the right skills in the right environment — not as firefighters, but as strategic leaders!

I encourage credit unions to send mid-level management through the Emerging Leaders Program. Learn more by registering for the ELP webinar, which will take place Feb. 27 at 10 a.m. PST.

DDJ Myers, Ltd. is committed to supporting credit unions with exemplary products and services for board development and governance, strategic planning, executive search, executive compensation advice, and succession planning. To learn more about partnering with them, visit their Strategic Link partner page or contact Jason Smith, Vice President of Strategic Resources, at 208.286.6794.