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Stuck in the middle with you

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By Martin Conboy

An ongoing concern for the BPO and Outsourcing industries, whether that’s in India, the Philippines, South Africa, Malaysia or where ever, is the supply of competent and qualified team leaders, supervisors and middle management. Their role is vital in maintaining the quality and performance of BPO centres around the world.

The industry has grown so fast that it’s not uncommon to see relatively young managers with hundreds of reports. What might take a manager in a first world western country half his or her working life to achieve in terms of seniority is being fast tracked in these service delivery centres. The challenge is that many middle managers are not yet ready in terms of life skills to handle the role thrust on them.

The industry has grown so fast that it’s not uncommon to see relatively young managers with hundreds of reports.

There is so much effort put into recruiting, training, and the development of agents and executives, but there’s frequently a lack of support for people in the middle. The rapid growth and expanding reach of the industry often drives a massive shortage of competent leaders and middle managers.

These mostly Gen Y middle managers are under enormous pressure but do not have the life skills and wisdom that comes with having gone around the block a few more times. There is a lot to be said for a bit of grey hair and a few well-earned scars on someone’s back. There are no real short cuts to wisdom, as they say life is not a dress rehearsal.

When you are in a play and rehearse, the dress rehearsal comes after much practice and you finally put on your costumes because you are now ready to present the play in full dress with everything in place, as the public will see it.

A dress rehearsal, like training isn’t reality though, it’s a pretend situation. Life is reality! Usually when you hear that quote you are being warned to be careful because there are no second chances, real life has consequences so we need to get it right just like customer service.

It’s the middle managers and supervisors in a BPO or outsourcing operation that are primarily responsible for delivering organisational results. They manage the people, the budgets, the operational processes, and support senior management’s strategic initiatives.

There are regular stories of someone entering the industry, within a couple of months they’ve become a team leader and within a year or two they are a supervisor or manager. So people with little experience and with little support are primarily responsible for the quality and performance of a particular facility or operation.

Agents and team leaders who do well are often promoted to middle management. Rewarding people with promotion, more responsibility and higher salary is important, but you need to ensure they receive the support, training and mentorship to cope with their new role. The stress and the ability to deal with it is a real killer for a younger person with out well-developed life skills.

It does not always follow that a successful agent isn’t necessarily going to make a good team leader, supervisor or manager.

The ideal middle manager

So, what should you expect from a good middle manager?

  • Someone with significant change management skills and experience is important. After all, in today’s world, the only constant is change.
  • A strong leadership mindset – someone who can take ownership of their actions and understands the impact they have on others
  • Of course good communication skills are vital.
  • Talent management is also a must

It’s clear that great midlevel managers are expected to possess leadership skills and a leadership mindset. Waiting for someone to “mature in the role” is no longer an option.

But can leadership be learned? The answer to that question isn’t obvious. It seems that leadership; one of the scarcest and least enduring components of human capital, is not learned easily or well.

What is leadership anyway?

In plain language, leadership is the dynamic that spurs individuals into groups to make things different or to make things better — for themselves, for their enterprise, for the world around them.

In plain language, leadership is the dynamic that spurs individuals into groups to make things different or to make things better

It’s important that BPO and outsourcing providers not to direct all of their attention to their most senior executives, or to those stepping into management ranks for the first time. In fact the more time and effort spent on middle managers will assist the entire organisation in terms of managing its talent. The better lead and managed an organisation is, the more productive it will be with a lower staff attrition rate. A good example is an army, any army. The people that make it work efficiently and cohesively are the non commissioned officers – the armies middle management group.

Much of leadership education is devoted to teaching style and technique. Much of what is taught is, in fact, not leadership at all but management. It is entirely possible to learn and even to put into practice what is taught and still fail at being a good leader. The essential components of leadership have remained more or less constant: intelligence, insight, instinct, vision, communication, discipline, courage, and constancy.

All can be studied and studied again. The ability to ace leadership principles and practices does not, however, mean that leadership has been learned. Because what is being taught does not necessarily help leadership candidates learn the essentials. Knowing is one thing; doing is quite another.

Development and Support

Leadership development programs targeted to this key middle management level can greatly help align their leadership behaviours with existing business strategy and goals. It can also help identify success factors for a leadership competency model that can serve as the basis for achieving business goals. Once a competency model is developed, managers can be measured against the success factors.

Senior executives need to reinforce developmental action plans for middle managers with follow-up discussions and coaching. They should give particular attention to on-the-job experiences that might be helpful in developing individual skills and competencies.

These projects need not be large. Smaller but more meaningful projects can provide valuable training experience while also contributing to a company’s business results. By targeting middle managers for development, executives are sending a clear message about their importance to the organisation.

At the same time, middle managers are impacting everyday company performance, creating the next generation of executive leaders, and aligning all parts of the company for achieving business success.   Follow Martin Conboy on Twitter


July 1, 2014
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