Middle management is not a topic that typically grabs headlines. Yet effective middle managers hold the key to Africa’s prosperity. African organisations across sectors and of different sizes cite a talent gap at the middle manager level. Traditional training models are failing to close this gap. Africa needs a fresh approach to help millions of middle managers build the skills needed to drive their organisations – and the continent – forward.
At the African Management Initiative (AMI), we have conducted extensive research into Africa’s critical talent gap. We found that Africa’s most pressing problem is at the middle and junior management level: the ‘engine room’ that drives organisations. There is a huge gap between often very competent senior executives and middle and lower level managers who lack core personal effectiveness and leadership skills. And the need is particularly acute in smaller and mid-sized companies.
Global data gathered over the last few years shows the importance of good middle management. Gallup2 has estimated that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units, and when good managers are in place, organisations can achieve, on average, 147% higher earnings per share than their competition. Still, companies miss the mark on high managerial talent in 82% of their hiring decisions, which is an alarming problem for employee engagement and the development of high-performing cultures in organisations worldwide.
According to IBM’s 2014 study on global training initiatives3, 71% of CEOs around the world say that human capital rather than products, customer relationships and brands are critical to economic value at their companies. They also say that people skills are in the top four critical external forces impacting on their enterprises. 65% of global leaders cite talent and management shortages as their number one business challenge.
AMI interviewed corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, NGOs, educators, training providers and consultants from across the continent and consistently heard stories of poor management, of a disconnect between theory and practice, of companies struggling to find the people to launch their brands in new markets, of entrepreneurs battling to identify the people to help them drive growth. Frequently, a shortage of quality middle managers was cited as a major constraint on growth. In Kenya, we conducted a survey of HR professionals to understand the need for management training in more detail. We found the biggest need was unsurprisingly training for new employees, but this was followed quite closely (in order) by middle management, junior managers/supervisors, frontline staff and then senior managers. Specialists and top management development was rated lower in priority.
We estimate very roughly that there could be at least between 11 and 15 million management positions in formal organisations across the continent. But the need is even larger in the SME sector, which rarely has the money and access to traditional corporate training programmes. In Kenya alone it is estimated that there are 750 000 small and medium sized companies5. McKenzie6 (2015) reports the extraordinary figure that 99.6% of firms in Nigeria employ fewer than ten workers.
What is more alarming is that organisations aren’t sure how to meet this need. The 2014 EY report on Sub-Saharan Africa talent trends7 found that both talent management and leadership development were rated as highly important, but also as areas where the respondents felt they lacked the capacity to deliver. Both in 2014 and 2013 management development was rated considerably higher in priority than technical and vocational skills, yet most organisations focus on developing the latter.
There is currently a lack of capacity to develop new managers. Africa has far too few good formal business schools to meet the need for management education, and in any case graduate schools of business will only ever be able to address a niche in the market for management development. Other training institutions addressing the need at middle and junior levels often have quality problems, and only the larger companies can afford good internal training centres or corporate universities. A few impactful SME training programs have emerged, although they have struggled to find scalable and sustainable business models. The non-academic management training market is fragmented and often of a low quality. Critically, it lacks any mechanisms for setting and measuring quality standards and for ensuring that learning translates into improved on-the-job performance. The HR professionals surveyed by AMI felt most existng training offerings are too theoretical. They are looking for a solution that goes beyond traditional uses of training, which typically focused on technical skills, to develop critical middle management ’soft’ skills around personal effectiveness and people management.
At AMI, we believe traditional management training has failed, and a new approach is needed. We have been pioneering a new solution for developing talent at the middle and junior management level, focused on practical skills that transform individuals and deliver real results for organisations. The preferred solution is blended learning in which the economy, scale and convenience of online learning is managed through the intensity, practice and shared insight of face-to-face interactions. This works best in customised company programmes with peer learning, feedback and accountability that integrate learning and on-the-job performance.
AMI data show that middle management performance can indeed be transformed. Of those who participated in AMI blended learning programmes, 97% reported that they apply what they learn at work and 86% reported improved effectiveness. Among entrepreneurs/business owners, 85% reported an improvement in operating efficiency since engaging with AMI. 82% reported that the AMI blended method was more helpful than other training providers they had experienced.
Middle managers are rarely seen as glamourous. But they may well turn out to be Africa’s unlikely heros, holding the key to organisational success, and in turn, to Africa’s prosperity. Leaders neglect middle managers at their peril. They are the engine room of our organisations, and it is time to put them to work.
The African Management Initiative (AMI) is a fast-growing social enterprise that helps businesses across Africa build motivated, productive and effective workforces through blended learning programmes. AMI works with managers and entrepreneurs on building key business management skills. We have partnerships with numerous organisations on work-readiness programmes for young people entering the workforce.
We have already reached over 15,000 African managers and entrepreneurs from over 25 African countries and are expanding rapidly through an innovative blend of web, mobile and in-person workshops.