Posted by Steve Botham
March 20th, 2013 | No Comments »
An organisation’s success depends on its middle! In changing times greater effectiveness, raised productivity, stronger focus and high impact innovation are essential – and each of these depends on middle managers. However brilliant senior manager’s plans, visions and aspirations are they flounder or succeed on the implementation skills of their middle managers. Middle Managers are critical –and they are under incredible pressure –do they get the leadership support they need?
I was working with the Police who were struggling with change. The Area Commander was a visionary, energetic, change agent – wanting to take a force lead in delivering greater effectiveness. He described his Inspectors as the people who stand on the bridge between the future and the present. They interpret his vision and translate into a language the Sergeants and PCs can understand, they reinforce his messages and challenges, they change the culture. But the Inspectors did not buy into the role. They were not tackling poor performance, they were not engaging their teams to find improved ways of working at a local level and they were not challenging back upwards when there was a need for greater clarity around the key areas of focus.
One writer describes the problem facing leaders as “Meeting new demands with insufficient resources”. Staff are overworked – and yet talent, ideas and expertise are often under utilised as we struggle to meet the day to day demands.
Great leaders understand that they can only deliver great performance through others. They depend on others – especially middle managers – and invest time in stretching and challenging those managers. Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown in their book “Multipliers – how the best leaders make everyone smarter” describe two types of leader. Those who kill ideas, suck all the energy out of a team and lead hard working, driven and compliant teams. They want to be in control, to have the credit and ensure no one else has a voice. In contrast multipliers are brilliant at doing more with less. They cultivate ideas, they find ways of doing things more effectively, they give people responsibility and credit, and they energise their teams.
Samsung faced an enormous challenge in the 1990’s – they were way behind their international rivals like Sony. They wanted to develop an international company but had a 100% Korean workforce with very limited understanding of the global market and cultures. They invested in a cadre of middle managers – sending them all over the world to better understand how to shape and engage with the potential markets. It was a phenomenal success. By changing the middle managers mind-set and understanding they built a dramatically different future.
I was with the Chief Executive of a national charity recently – his style is to push and challenge those people with talent and potential. We have seen significant improvements in the contribution his leadership team make to the organisation – and he will continue to raise their game. They recently led a national campaign when middle managers had to step right out of their comfort zone and engage local politicians in some key changes. The end result was outstanding and gave middle managers huge confidence. Many would not have taken this risk – would have argued it was beyond the middle managers capability. But the CEO believed that with the right understanding, the right tools and on-going support that enabled learning from every political encounter the middle managers could significantly raise their game.
Middle managers take the a leader’s vision, focus and change and interpret it. Senior managers will have a long time scale, they see the bigger picture, and have a broad understanding of the consequences of their decisions. Middle managers work to shorter times scales – they look a week or month ahead and ask – “How does this new initiative work alongside my operational priorities? How do I make best use of my resources? What pace can I go at given the other requirements of my team? He/she will set direction – if they are good at their job they will ensure their team members clearly know what is expected of them.
Middle Managers are under enormous pressure and wrestle daily with the challenges of making best use of diminished resources. Their organisations want them to think differently, to find more effective ways of working, to raise performance. How many have the capacity to do so? Many leaders need to give more time and support to the struggling middle – all too often things break down because there is not a shared understanding. The questions below enable you to review your middle managers and identify areas for change.
Is your organisation stuck in the middle?
1. Can strategy implementation be improved in your organisation?
2. How often do your change projects fail to deliver on time and to budget?
3. Could more ideas, improvements, opportunities come from middle managers and their teams?
4. Do you know how well middle managers understand and are committed to your key priorities?
5. What do your best middle managers do to engage, energise and develop talent? How is this “best practice” spread?
6. Does the organisation do enough to tackle managers who demotivate, have high staff turnover, disengagement, or poor innovation?
7. Could you middle managers improve their problem solving skills?
8. What is the most important contribution your middle managers should be making at the moment?
Using this list where are there opportunities to raise the contribution of your middle managers? What could you do differently to strengthen your managers and ensure you do not become stuck in the middle?
Steve Botham, Chief Executive Caret Consulting Group