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Addressing the Middle Managers Skills Gap: A Strategic Approach to Retention and Upskilling

BY: Dr. Jeff Frey, Vice President, Executive Education and Professional Advancement

Throughout my interactions with corporate leaders, I have noticed a common concern that has been brought up repeatedly over the past few months: the skills gap among middle managers. Numerous organizations have been investing in the professional development of senior leadership, but are now acknowledging the need to rapidly improve the skills of entry and mid-level managers. 

Several organizations I work with often “battlefield promote”, appointing the most skilled team member as its new leader out of necessity when another manager leaves. However, research suggests that this approach often leads to more front-level employees leaving the organization. Executives are now starting to make significantly more investments in developing nascent leaders with both hard and soft skills.  

The Skills Gap for Middle Managers

Recent statistics reveal that approximately one-third of new employees tend to resign from their jobs within six months. Furthermore, in the U.S., around 3-4.5 million employees quit their jobs every month. This high employee turnover rate has led to the loss of valuable talent and increased recruitment, training, and replacement expenses for companies [1]. To address this, we need to understand the reasons why people are leaving their jobs; and while factors such as salary and benefits are significant, the role of a direct manager is also vital.

Impact of Managers on Retention Rates

I’m hearing a lot of companies talk about the crucial role that managers play in retaining employees. According to one company, exit surveys revealed that “my manager” was cited as the primary reason for leaving more than any other factor. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that “quiet quitting” — when employees do the bare minimum and lack discretionary effort — is linked more to a manager’s ability to cultivate positive relationships with their team, rather than the employee’s willingness to work harder. Essentially, the research indicates that a manager’s capacity to create a work environment where employees feel appreciated and engaged is key [2].

The Importance of Soft Skills

While hard skills such as HR, strategy, finance, and operations are essential, the skills gap is more pronounced in the domain of soft skills [1]. Emotional intelligence, crucial conversations, and navigating change are — and becoming even more — essential in today’s hybrid, complex, diverse, and dynamic work environment. Companies must focus on developing these soft skills in their middle managers to enhance their effectiveness in leading teams and adapting to organizational changes.

Our Executive Education Division’s Impact

Abilene Christian University’s (ACU) Executive Education division has recognized the significance of addressing the skills gap for middle managers. Through innovative and tailored programs, we have successfully upskilled existing managers at various corporations, leading to improved employee retention rates. By offering training programs and mentoring opportunities, we help managers develop their skill sets in areas such as emotional intelligence, communication, and change management, as well as strategic capacity, finance, human resources, and operations all of which are vital for their success as leaders in the modern workplace.

The Employee Candidate Program: A Unique Solution

In addition to upskilling existing managers, ACU has introduced an Employee Candidate Program that recruits, trains, and mentors job changers to become successful managers across different industries. This program not only helps fill the talent gap for middle management positions but also provides opportunities for individuals seeking career transitions. The Employee Candidate Program is a four-step process: identifying potential candidates, providing custom candidate training, engaging with partnering companies to understand their work culture, values, and expectations, and facilitating candidate placements into partnering organizations. This program enables ACU to build lasting relationships, create networking connections, and continue its legacy. 

If you’d like more information about ACU’s executive education, upskilling, reskilling, or employee candidate program, request a consultation with Mark Jones at or visit

Dr. Jeff Frey, Vice President of Executive Education and Professional Advancement at Abilene Chrisitan University, is a leading expert on the #futureofwork. With a wealth of experience in both industry and academia, he is committed to empowering business professionals for success in today’s ever-evolving workforce. Through innovative and tailored programs at ACU, he upskills existing managers, emphasizing vital soft skills like emotional intelligence, communication, and change management, along with strategic expertise in finance, HR, and operations; and recruits, trains, and mentors aspiring managers, filling talent gaps and offering new career opportunities.


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