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If you want your strategy to work, don’t underestimate the critical role of middle managers

The following scenario unfolds every day in organizations of every size across the globe:  The CEO and his top management team unveil a new strategic plan or a new “change initiative” to dozens of executives and managers the next level down.  Senior management implores these mid-level managers to “get on board” the initiative because it is critical to the success – and sometimes even the survival – of the organization.  After the top executive presents the plan (often in an “all hands” meeting), the mid-level managers ramble out into the hall, grumbling about what they just heard.  The “un” words fill the air: “unrealistic,” “unfathomable,” “unnecessary,” “unclear,” “unwise.”

For years, mid-level managers have been expected to “get on board” their companies’ strategic initiatives without tough questions and, most of all, without dissent.  Today, however, a grudging attitude of “we’ll get in line even if we don’t like it” is actually worse than outright insubordination – especially for the senior executives.  If the senior leaders of the company become aware that some managers do not support their directives, they at least can take instant and corrective action.  Not so when middle managers nod “yes” and think and behave “no.”  It could take the CEO and his senior leaders months if not more time to realize the execution of his strategy is going awry.  And by that time, it may be too late.  A new product may be dead on arrival.  A major cost-cutting program may eke out incremental savings and fail to resolve a huge pricing disadvantage. A quality improvement initiative may be too little, too late to stave off mass customer defections.

Let’s be honest – every strategy is an educated guess about what a company must do to improve performance, and some are more educated than others.  Thus, given that no strategy is perfect, companies need middle managers and employees who will point out and correct the flaws quickly.  This is crucial today given that every company is part of the global economy with fierce competition.

The middle managers are so important because they sit at the critical junction between vision/strategy and execution. In addition, while senior executives tend to move around more frequently for their careers, many middle managers tend to stay in their roles for longer periods of time. This makes them more seasoned and knowledgeable about what it takes to make things happen in the organization.  If they get authentically on board with the company’s strategy there is a high chance of success because the middle managers will go out of their way to coordinate and drive effective actions, even in a highly political environment. But, if they are not genuinely on board, the middle managers will say all the right things but go through the motions, pay lip service and as a result momentum will be stagnated. I have seen this happen many times.

But even with the most ingenious and clearest of business strategies,  middle managers will never fully commit to the plan and go to all ends to make it work if they don’t believe or trust their leaders sincerity, courage, competence and concern.

  • Sincerity and honesty about what’s really going on in the company (including the reason why the firm needs a new direction) as well as what will happen next (good news and bad news).
  • Courage and resolve to hear the truth and make the hard decisions required for the strategy to work.
  • Competence in managing the strategy and the changes associated with it over time, including all the challenges and opportunities that could appear along the way.
  • Concern for those who will be affected by it – for the human consequences of the plan, as  all new strategies wreak major workplace changes.

 

As former General Electric CEO Jack Welch put it, “To have a fighting chance, companies need to get every employee, with every idea in their heads and every morsel of energy in their bodies, into the game.”  This means middle managers must be totally committed to their company’s strategy in order for it to work.