The Middle Management Gap Part 2

In the first part of this article, published in our March newsletter, we talked about 4 challenges mid-level managers face. They are often viewed as “caught in the middle” between the senior leaders above them who impose strategy that they are required to implement, and the team members who work for them that look up for direction and support. The four common and costly challenges I outlined were:

  • Challenge 1: They are expected to rollout strategy without clarity of a clear vision and goals from senior leadership.
  • Challenge 2: The invisible gap in communication between senior management and middle managers.
  • Challenge 3: Inconsistency in performance feedback from senior leaders to middle managers.
  • Challenge 4: Micro-management from above that forces everyone to lead at a lower level.

This post offers strategies to complement these challenges. Challenge 1: Implement Strategy without Clarity of Vision and Goals When middle managers don’t truly understand the vision of their organization, (1) it’s very difficult to rollout strategy and change initiatives, and (2) you can bet your bottom dollar that your front line employees don’t understand it either. Vision isn’t about having a pretty poster on the conference room wall, and it’s not about the one time you communicated it during the monthly all-staff meeting. Vision is about providing a clear picture of the future…every day. Your middle managers should have a vision for their teams or departments, because that’s what leaders do. They look forward. But, it’s often difficult to create a vision when there isn’t clarity from above. So, how do you overcome this challenge? Using what we call the 2-minute Vision. It has three parts.

  1. A story, visual or metaphor about  an ideal picture of the future.
  2. The impact it will have – to you, your customers, your organization, and other stakeholders.
  3. A compelling statement on how you intend to get there. (e.g., the values that people need to exemplify to make the vision a reality)

The 2-minute Vision is designed to help you communicate your vision succinctly, and in a way that makes it easy to reiterate multiple times a day, from water cooler conversations to one-on-ones to weekly staff meetings. Challenge 2: The invisible gap in communication between senior management and middle managers. Picture this. Your senior leadership team makes a decision, you’re ready to act, and you make an announcement to the entire organization at one time.  After all, it’s quicker, everyone receives the same message, and you can quickly move on to the next task. The challenge is that your middle managers are the ones who will likely be held accountable for rolling out your decision. And when they aren’t involved in process, they are left unprepared as they try fielding “how” and “why” questions from their employees. As a result, senior leaders lose trust and commitment from their middle managers. Here’s a three-part strategy to help you close the communication gap between the senior team and middle management.

  1. At the end of each of your meetings, save time to review the decisions that were made.
  2. For information that needs to be communicated deeper in the organization than your middle managers, develop a plan to communicate with them directly. This will offer you an opportunity to gather their input in how to best roll out the decision and enable them to ask questions so that they can be prepared when their employees ask the same ones.
  3. From there, you can utilize your normal communication channels, such as the all-staff or email, and then your middle managers can follow-up in an intentional and knowledgeable manner.

Does this take longer that just the email blast or all-staff announcement? In the short-term it does. But, in the end, you’ll deal with less resistance, resulting in saved time and energy. Challenge 3: Inconsistency in performance feedback from senior leaders to middle managers. Middle managers need feedback just as much as your front line employees. In fact, if you want to fill your leadership pipeline with talented people, senior leaders should spend up to 20% of their time coaching their middle managers. Here are two simple methods to provide more consistent feedback and coaching.

  1. Conduct regular one-on-ones. These are critical to creating positive behavioral change. They open the lines of communication and provide an informal yet structured approach to setting expectations and providing feedback. Make sure these are more meaningful than simply project status updates, as these are intended for emerging leader development. The timeframe between meetings largely depends on the leadership maturity of the person being coached, and a monthly cadence is a good place to start.
  2. Question, listen, advise/respond, and follow-up. This coaching approach of responding after questioning and listening first will help you enable your middle mangers instead of rescuing them. It will also give you a barometer of where the middle manager is in their development. Following up after crucial conversations is an important, and often over looked, component that provides the reinforcement needed for actual behavioral change.

Challenge 4: Micro-management from above that forces everyone to lead at a lower level. When leaders fail to change what they do as they move into more senior leadership positions, there is a ripple effect downward where every leader beneath is also forced to operate one level below where they should be. For example, Functional Leaders perform like Managers, Managers perform like Supervisors, and Supervisors perform like Team leaders.  As a result, the overall organizational culture rewards tactical/day-to-day behavior and leaders never get to do what they are supposed to do – which is to think about the future. (Managers focus on today). To overcome this challenge, there should be clear passages to each higher level of leadership. For example, leaders of people, leaders of leaders, and leaders of organization should all be focused on a different set of responsibilities. The book The Leadership Pipeline offers a comprehensive model where each turn in leadership to higher levels requires a new set of skills, time applications, and work values. This common language allows an organization to clarify what leaders need to do at each level of leadership and prepare people for future roles. So, where do you go from here? Closing the gap between senior leaders and middle management is common sense, but not often common practice. There are no silver bullets or magical answers. It takes a clear and compelling vision that is communicated every day, intentional communication about key decisions, consistent coaching and feedback, and a common language on what leaders do at different levels.

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