What are New Expectations for Mid-Level Leaders?

By Erin Wilson Burns, Leslie Kawai | July 3, 2024

Key Takeaways: 

  • Organizations with strong mid-level leaders have better financial returns.
  • Post-COVID, mid-level leaders must anticipate future talent needs, connect people to the organization, and guide work in collaborative and empowering ways.
  • To cultivate effective mid-level leadership, organizations should encourage reflection, model coaching behaviors, and invest in talent development skills.

Mid-level leaders (managers who have other managers reporting to them) play a critical role in organizations as a bridge between executive and first-line leaders. They are a conduit for information up, down, and across the organization. They have enormous influence that can either facilitate or impede the success and speed of organizational changes. And they play a critical role in recruiting, developing, and motivating the employees who get the organization’s work done. 

While they are often criticized as the source of bureaucracy and one of the first targets of downsizing initiatives, their role in helping consistently deliver on customer and investor expectations cannot be ignored. Recent research by Emily Field and colleagues found that companies with better mid-level leaders were four times as likely as their peers to have superior long-term financial performance and they experienced more sustained revenue growth during the pandemic, even estimating that the financial impact on the average Fortune 500 company of mid-level leader effectiveness was $2 billioni.  There can be no doubt that improving the quality of mid-level leaders in your organization is a smart investment with a strong ROI.

The pressing question, particularly coming off the disruption of the last four years to how, where, and what work is being done, is what to invest in. What are the specific skills and behaviors that companies should invest in if they want to improve mid-level leadership skills that influence strong organizational outcomes?

To help answer that question, we turned to our database of more than 2.2 million leadership-behavior ratings from 2009-2023. We analyzed 143,065 ratings of mid-level leaders from the periods of 2015-2019 (pre-COVID) and 2021-2023 (post-COVID). Each leader in the database was evaluated by their manager, peers, and direct reports on 67 leadership behaviors drawn from five research-based leadership domains (Strategist, Executor, Human Capital Developer, Talent Manager, and Personal Proficiency) in the RBL Leadership Code® as well as four outcome measures weighting each leader’s organizational value contribution

How have expectations of mid-level leaders shifted? 

The table below identifies key shifts: what is still important, as well as what is more and less important, for today’s mid-level leaders who want to deliver strong value for their organizations (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Key Shifts in Mid-Level Leader Behaviors that Drive Organizational Value Pre-COVID (2015-2019) vs. Post-COVID (2021-2023)

Mid-Level Leadership Behaviors that Create Organizational Value

What’s the same post-COVID?

Like in the past, successful mid-level leaders are those who can use their influence and authority to get the right things done. They understand how to connect the dots between their part of the organization, the broader organization, and what customers and investors expect. They can clearly articulate how those pieces fit together and make crucial decisions that keep work moving in the right direction without micro-managing the process. 

They create alignment with the strategic direction of the organization and drive the changes needed to make that strategic direction a reality. Embedded in the notion of “the right things” or “needed changes” or “broader implications” is an expectation that they have done the analytical and strategic thinking required to be able to identify and prioritize the “right” or “needed” thing.

What’s different post-COVID?

The Great Resignation, “quiet quitting,” the more fluid location of work, the rapidly evolving skills required to do the work, and other characteristics of the post-COVID global business environment has brought a focus on building talent for the future front and center. Our post-COVID research affirms one of the clear positions we take in our original Leadership Code model -- that the leader’s job is not just getting the work done today but it is equally important they are making sure they have the people in place to do the work tomorrow. 

This research shows that it is increasingly important for mid-level leaders to identify talent needs for the future and then invest time in their employees to help them develop and prepare for that future. Here’s what our research suggests mid-level leaders must do better and differently today to drive strong organizational value: 

  1. Look ahead to what talent and skills will be needed: To be successful in creating organizational value in a post-COVID world, mid-level leaders have to be able to know what skills and competencies their teams need to have for the future and make sure they are preparing people for the critical roles that will create value for customers and investors not just for today but for tomorrow.
  2. Connect key employees through common goals: They need to not only align the work of their teams with the strategic goals of the organization but they need to help the people on their teams, especially key employees, understand how they can meet their personal career goals through staying with the organization. They need to be able to help them identify the right development areas to help them be prepared to achieve those goals.  
  3. Be more collaborative and empowering in guiding the work: Today’s successful mid-level leaders are getting the work done less by hands-on direction and more by establishing clear alignment on outcomes and working to support and empower their teams to accomplish them. The data suggest a stronger expectation for establishing clarity about what needs to be delivered at the same time that it shows less emphasis on detailed oversight, constant communication, and rigidity of roles and purpose within teams. 

Taking the above together, it’s as if successful mid-level leaders are telling their teams “Let’s get the work done and if you’re helping me do that how it needs to be done, I can help you get where you want to go.”

Growing Today's Mid-level Leaders 

Mid-level leaders are the glue that holds organizations together. They must transition from being knowledgeable about a narrow area to understanding how their parts of the organization work together with other parts of the organization to create value for external stakeholders and then build the teams and leaders to achieve that.

Evaluate how you are doing on today’s most critical mid-level leader behaviors with the self-assessment in figure 2.

If you are an executive who leads mid-level leaders or an HR business partner who supports them, this research can be used to help guide your efforts to:

  • Create reflection and renewal space for them: The cognitive skills that are so important for success at the mid-level require both time and mental resources to be able to apply them to critical decision-making and problem-solving. The pressures on mid-level leaders have not yet resolved in a way that gives them the ability to create space for personal investments that renew their passion and resources for their work. Executives who lead mid-level leaders can encourage them to make time for the activities that renew and restore them so they can bring their best thinking to guiding the work of their teams.  Our research suggests work-life balance is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for strong performance.
  • Model being a leader-coach: Start with the behaviors highlighted above and discuss them with your mid-level leaders. Ask them: what skills do you think will have the biggest impact on our performance? What efforts have you made already and what results did you get? What else might you try that could work better? How can I support your progress? Invest your time to provide them with the feedback, consistency, and support they need to grow and sustain positive behavioral change.
  • Invest in growing their talent development skills: Complement modeling being a leader-coach with specific skills-based training for mid-level leaders that enhances their ability to engage, coach, and grow their teams for today and for tomorrow. Practical tools like a development conversation-starter cheat sheet or hands-on practice with a coaching model can significantly improve mid-level leader confidence and ability to engage with their teams in ways that grow contribution, potential, and even today’s business results.


The work that mid-level leaders do to bridge the inside and the outside, today’s work and tomorrow’s direction, the details and the big picture is critical work that facilitates the agility organizations need to succeed in today’s world. Building a strong cadre of mid-level leaders who can do that work well is an investment in being able to deliver strong results to the market that will pay dividends in long-term financial performance and revenue growth.

We believe this research provides important, data-based insights on how to build mid-level leaders that will deliver exceptional value to employees, customers, investors, and communities.

To discuss how this research can help you build an evidence-based leadership brand and culture that increase value for your stakeholders, contact us to be connected with our leadership experts.

Download a PDF summary of this research here. For more mid-level leadership insights, click here and here. For first-line leadership research insights, click here.

iEmily Field, Bryan Hancock, Stephanie Smallets, and Brooke Weddle, “Investing in middle managers pays off--literally,” June 26, 2023 (available at: www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/investing-in-middle-managers-pays-off-literally) and Emily Field, Bryan Hancock, and Bill Schaninger, “Author Talks: What Does it Mean to Be A Good Middle Manager,” June 1, 2023 (available at: www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-on-books/author-talks-what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-good-middle-manager).

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 20 years of experience in leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design and transformation consulting.

About the author

Leslie is a principal with the RBL Group. She is an experienced executive coach who combines cognitive-behavior research and leadership development to help leaders and organizations drive business results through high performance.

About the author
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