Middle managers: Developing the right skill sets

The question still remains: What skills do middle managers need and how can they get them?

Mike Keslar's roots are with the wholesale banking side of Mellon Financial Corp. "I didn't grow up on the technology side," he says. "I think my job is more of a challenge because I don't have that background." But the ability to interact with technicians, senior leaders and users and then translate messages so that they're meaningful to each group is what's most important in his job.

By contrast, Stephen Kessler rose through the ranks at MetLife Inc. on the technology side. For him, "the technical skills that I have are just something that I fall back on all the time. They're just an innate part of me."

He spends time keeping pace with new technologies, though he doesn't get into the details of how to code them anymore. But like Keslar, he feels that continuing to develop management and people skills is most critical for his job and for his constant evolution as a manager.

Quy Nguyen Huy, professor of strategy and management at France-based INSEAD graduate business school and author of In Praise of Middle Managers, finds that managers typically feel too much illusory loyalty to the companies they work for. He suggests seeking continuous training and development, both within and outside organizations. Keep up with technical skills, especially those that relate to management, he says. This way, managers can maintain their performance at a company and, if they're pushed out, can remain marketable.

Huy also advises managers to publicize their achievements internally and externally, in part by speaking at conferences, writing in trade journals and cooperating with academics and journalists who can feature them in their works.

Bic Vogel, a manager at Atlanta-based Delta Technology Inc., advises new managers to begin drawing on their natural strengths rather than trying to fake their way through perfection. The first stages of management -- particularly because there's no experience to fall back on -- can be especially intimidating, he says. But as managers grow more comfortable in their roles, they can identify areas to improve upon, then watch peers, ask questions and read books.

"Reading allows you to cafeteria-shop, pick up things you can use and throw out stuff you don't agree with," Vogel says.

He also suggests asking for feedback from staffers and peers. Delta offers a mentoring program that pairs middle managers with vice presidents. That's given Vogel an extraordinary level of perspective that he never would have gotten otherwise.

"The VP is like this magical, mythical position," he says. "The earlier in your career you are, the easier that position seems. ... But when you get exposed to the responsibilities and the pressures, it's a whole different perspective."

The mentorship -- combined with his limited exposure to management -- have also helped Vogel set more realistic goals about his future. When asked if he wanted to move up to vice president, Vogel was quick to respond: "Honest answer? No."

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