“The way organisations used to run was that you’d have a boss and a solid line into the people who work for him or her,” says Harry Dunlevy, director of HR consultancy Independent. “Now people are expected to move across organisations and work laterally on many things at once.”
Individuals wanting to progress within these modern structures need to be comfortable not only leading a team of direct reports but also managing people from other disciplines.
They must possess the ability to influence those above them in the organisational hierarchy on issues that may lie outside their traditional remit.
“People succeed on the quality of their ideas, so anyone can emerge as a natural leader,” says Vlatka Hlupic, professor of business and management at Westminster Business School. “When we talk about leading from the middle it comes down to taking responsibility, making decisions on the basis of knowledge, sharing ideas and speaking up.”
While there are clear organisational benefits to having strong leadership skills within middle management, it is often the responsibility of individuals to create opportunities for themselves.
Recent research by Ashridge Business School on the learning experiences of middle managers in the UK found that 80% have had to drive their own career development.
Darren Cassidy, vice president of offer and business development at Xerox Managed Print Services, actively promotes a culture in which managers are encouraged to look beyond their traditional remit.
He attributes his rise up the corporate ladder to his own efforts in this area. “It became clear to me that I couldn’t get the outcomes I required by focusing only on the people that worked for me directly,” he says. “The key was being able to very clearly articulate which areas I needed to focus on and then to explain to senior managers what I was trying to achieve and the outcomes I was going to get.”
Most individuals have the opportunity to extend their remit into new areas but often feel limited by their “circle of control”, suggests Frances Storr, who is a partner at the organisational development consultants Sheppard Moscow.
“It’s a question of understanding what your span of authority and influence is, and operating right up to the edges of it,” she says. “The thing that sometimes worries people is the idea of stepping beyond their span of authority, yet most have clear water between their normal sphere of operation and potential limits.”
Central to taking on and managing projects successfully is the ability to establish trust with other members of the business, many of whom may hold an ostensibly higher-ranking post.
“Self-awareness regarding the impact on others and of their view of self-orientation – whether you are seen as being motivated by the good of the organisation or merely by self-advancement – will be critical to successfully establishing a leadership profile,” says Chris Rogers, managing consultant at training specialists ASK Europe.
“A trusted, credible and optimistic individual can inspire and encourage others without holding a senior position.”