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Middle management used to be the place where careers stalled, but the pandemic has turned that notion on its head. In fact, mid-level leaders possess more agency now than at any other time in recent history.
The tight job market is opening up new opportunities for capable middle managers who show initiative. The old saying “people don’t leave organizations; people leave people” has never been truer. Companies that don’t tangibly show that they value their best people—by developing their skills and helping them reach their full potential—will lose them, perhaps to competitors.
Companies tend to gauge capacity based on leaders’ technical execution of tasks, but that perspective overlooks foundational elements that help these professionals reach a higher level—the T-shaped leader.
In this development model, the vertical line of the T represents depth of expertise, and the horizontal line reflects broadening experiences aimed at preparing the individual for enterprise-level leadership. The goal is to build technical competencies in both directions. The T-shaped manager framework has a critical flaw: It overlooks the importance of emotional intelligence.
This approach builds on the Day, Harrison, and Halpin’s view of leader development, which argues that improving leaders’ knowledge, skill, and attitudes will increase their capacity.
The pyramid shaped MSK Framework takes these principles a step further, offering organizations a way to apply these three principles:
The foundational level of the MSK Leader Development Framework pyramid targets a leader’s mindset, in particular, the beliefs that orient the way we handle situations and sort out what is going on.
In order to assess what a leader can do and build additional capacity, the organization must create the space for the leader to gain clarity about conscious and unconscious beliefs they hold. An understanding of those beliefs and how they inform actions is critical to understanding different perspectives and thinking more broadly.
The middle tier of the pyramid addresses a leader’s skills. Conventional thinking considers skills merely a person’s abilities. In the MSK Framework, the skills level seeks to answer the question: Who are you as a leader? Emotional intelligence reigns supreme here.
Leader development work around skills presents both the leader and the organization the opportunity to assess whether the leader is flexible, resilient, adaptable, empathetic, and self-aware, among other qualities.
The top tier of the Framework considers a leader’s knowledge. Knowledge includes the leader’s technical training, socialization, and executing abilities. Some organizations focus on this tier at the expense of the previous ones, but a shift in perspective can produce significant results, particularly for middle managers.
Whereas the T-shaped model emphasizes technical competencies in the vertical and horizontal axes, the MSK Leader Development Framework assumes that leaders are technically competent and will continue to grow.
To begin exploring and cultivating a leader’s mindset, organizations should shift from “telling” to “inquiring.” Directive dialogue teaches your direct reports about how you think.
Inquiry creates the opportunity for your direct reports to slow down and gain insight into how they think. When you engage with direct reports, inquire about the beliefs that underpin their assumptions. Avoid questions that begin with “why,” as they tend to place people on the defensive and stifle dialogue. Instead, ask questions that begin with “how” or “what.”
Organizations should invite leaders to identify no more than two areas in the emotional intelligence domain on which they would like to focus. The areas selected will offer greater insight into the question: Who are you as a leader?
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