Following a period of rapid company growth during the pandemic, ed-tech executives have become concerned that their organizations’ middle managers have been thrust into the most important roles of their careers — but lack the experience that will help their businesses continue to scale.
That was one of the top concerns among the findings of a new survey of ed-tech company executives and managers released Tuesday by a new industry advisory and membership organization.
Conducted by the Ed-tech Leadership Collective last month, the survey asked 145 ed-tech executives, department heads, functional leaders, people managers, and individual contributors about their perspective on leadership development in their organizations.
Of the C-level respondents, 74 percent say their middle managers have “limited, little, or no experience scaling an organization,” and that nearly a third of them say that lack of experience is “having a major impact” on the company’s ability to scale the business.
Collin Earnst, managing partner of the Leadership Collective, said that as an advisor to ed-tech companies and an operating leader, he’s heard from executives who are concerned their middle managers, and even some fellow executives, are “out of their depth,” and it’s blocking company growth.
The survey was aimed at unpacking those issues and gathering some quantitative data to help understand the trends, he said, as well as helping ed-tech leaders “recognize the risks and the opportunities and some of the solutions to help with this leadership gap.”
Earnst attributes the gap to the rapid infusion of cash into the space during the pandemic, including billions in federal funding and private investment dollars.
Companies grew more quickly than their managers’ skill sets, he said, and those still working remotely are learning how to manage in what’s largely new territory for many organizations’ cultures.
“The pace of funding and investment flowing into ed tech is outpacing the time it takes for emerging leaders to build their experience,” Earnst said, “and the kind of organic talent development that we experience in in-person environments is pretty scarce [in hybrid or fully remote roles].”
More Hiring Not a Cure-All
The stakes are high, as education companies are struggling with challenges on multiple fronts as they prepare for the looming fiscal cliff for federal funds, navigate political-cultural battles over instructional materials, manage inflation’s impact on their costs, and brace for a possible recession.
Department and functional leaders within companies themselves are aware of it.
A strong majority of those who responded to the survey, 66 percent, report that they are in the biggest roles of their career.
Executives see liabilities as well, with 82 percent saying the level of “mission-critical work” handled by middle managers is a risk to the business.
Many of those company leaders see limited options for building their organizations’ management ranks. Just 18 percent say they have confidence they could fill an executive vacancy internally.
Earnst has seen companies try to “hire their way out of a problem,” but external hires don’t always offer a solution, and those moves aren’t easy to pull off.
“Instead of investing in the systems, process, and structure, they say ‘We’ll hire more people,’ and it rarely ends in success,” he said.
Ed-tech organizations need to invest more in mentoring and training in order to get middle managers up to speed, according to the survey. Out of the executives who say they aren’t confident with the depth of their leadership, 93 percent say they also know high-potential employees aren’t getting the support they need to thrive.
“You can have a talented employee come in,” Earnst said, “but if the systems aren’t around them to get the data they need to do the job, or execute their marketing or sales campaigns, you’re hurting clarity about what the product is and who it’s being sold to.”
Image by Getty
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