Move Away from ‘Fire Focus’ by Nurturing ‘The Right Stuff’ in Middle Managers

firefighters working
Peter Myers Photo
Senior Vice President
DDJ Myers Ltd

3 minutes

The skills mid-level leaders need will be unique and are ideally documented in a leadership development plan.

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 mph getting 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 (read, “Orienting Mid-Level Leaders to Strategy”). Bridging that gap is a substantial and relevant challenge, and it is represented in three key questions: 

  1. How can the environment best support the development of new strategic skills? 
  2. What are the right skills for strategic leaders to develop?
  3. 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 expect a layer of leaders to have homogeneous skills would be overly presumptive and would underestimate the influence of context. Determining the skills that would help make a given leader more successful is based on the product of individual and professional priorities, the strategic plan, the functional area’s objectives, the environment and the support team. Put more simply, the right skills to develop are important and contextually relevant for both the individual and the organization. 

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 (read “How (Personal) Accountability Drives Empowerment”).

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. 

We think about it like this: Your organization has an LDP, it’s called a strategic plan. It guides and dictates behavior for some declared and meaningful purpose. Not having an actionable LDP that guides and directs behavior is like an organization that hasn’t sat down and committed to its priorities.

The dialogue that leads up to the formulation of endorsed and supportive goals reveals the ways all relevant parties can support an individual’s growth. If a developing leader’s goal is to develop a more autonomous and self-sufficient team, for example, the executive to whom that participant reports can support this progression by setting targets for the participant to spend X percent less time putting out fires and Y percent more time coaching and developing staff. This executive could be partly responsible for the number of fires the participant manages, so shifting the “firefighter assignment” to other individuals can help other people become more operationally adept. This creates the space and opportunity for multiple parties to develop skills. 

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!

Peter Myerssenior vice president of CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers Ltd., is a featured presenter in the CUES Webinar “Talent: Developing & Leveraging Your Most Valuable Asset.” Click here to watch the recording. Read more blogs with more examples of how credit unions align their leadership development to strategy and how developing talent must be a strategic priority. Also, download the “Missing Link in Strategic Execution: Developing Mid-Level Leaders” white paper. 

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