Monday, May 24, 2010

Improving Mid-level Management - part #2

THEME: Spring 2010 From Vision to Action Roundtable Report

FOCUS: Improving Mid-level Management - part #2

Monday morning: May 24, 2010

Dear friends,

Every week, someone in mid-level management wants to improve day-to-day operations, maximize efficiency, and get a lot things done in an orderly manner. When they struggle doing this, their organization often hires a consultant. This individual will arrive on-site, interview a variety of people to find out what is the problem, and, nine times out of ten, they will deliver the following solution: “In order to be more successful, the organization needs to empower more people, listen to more people, include more people, and support more people.” If the consultant is someone who reads the latest management best sellers, then they also state that “senior executives need to show that they care, and work hard to create a "no-spin" zone characterized by candid, frequent communication about strategic issues.” While I have tremendous respect for consultants and I know they can make a big difference, at times, I am frustrated by the quality of their answers.

When we seek to improve mid-level management, we have to realize that we often hire smart people and insert them into really dumb situations driven by even dumber systems. The solution is not to change the person, but to examine the systems that cause them immense frustration and poor performance. The first step is to review and more likely upgrade the current performance management systems.

Mid-level managers live in a world of goals, metrics and expectations. Some are realistic and some are so far out in left field and unrealistic that they are comical. Some goals are just not clear and never communicated well. Therefore, in the beginning, analyze how goals, expectations and metrics are developed, communicated, measured and utilized. Routinely, this is the source of many problems.

Second, mid-level managers need and deserve effective coaching. When I encounter problems in the performance of mid-level management and the goals, expectations and metrics have been clearly communicated, then recently I have discovered that many mid-level managers are receiving situational coaching instead of proactive coaching. As a mid-level manager passes a senior executive in the hallway, they ask a question or share a problem. Standing side by side, the issue is resolved. However, the learning and performance of those involved may not have been improved. In proactive coaching, time and space is reserved so a senior executive and a mid-level manager can focus on improving both skill set and strategic mindset rather than simply revolving the majority of their working relationship on emergency problem solving.

Third, we need to reframe execution by all managers. Earlier this spring (see Monday Thoughts Weekly E-mail for 4/5/10 at my blog link:, I advocated for a more holistic training and development model where we recognized that once an employee is hired, national statistics indicate there is a 33% chance of turnover in the first six months. Therefore, rather than thinking of on-boarding as filling out of paperwork and attending mandatory HR/Risk Management training, it is time to comprehend that this on-boarding process is where people learn about how to work effectively.

However, “... flawless execution cannot guarantee enduring success in a knowledge economy,” notes Amy C. Edmondson in her article “The Competitive Imperative of Learning”, July-August 2008, Harvard Business Review. As she explains, “great execution is difficult to sustain, not because people get tired of working hard but because the managerial mind-set that enables efficient execution inhibits employee’s ability to learn and innovate.”

There are two choices when it comes execution, namely to focus on execution-as-efficiency or to focus on execution-as-learning. In the former, execution-as-efficiency focuses on discipline, respect for systems, and an attention to detail. To make this happen, managers need to motivate employees using “carrots”, i.e. pay more for work completed, or “sticks”, i.e. reprimand or threaten job loss. The result of these choices is simple, controllable production and controllable employees. The major problem is an undercurrent of fear. To remove the fear, we need to not penalize any one who asks for help or admits a mistake. Otherwise, employees will go out of their way to pick easy tasks to show competence and avoid all challenges. Next, we need to acknowledge the lack of answers to the tough problems that employees face. Instead, we need to help mid-level managers learn to ask better questions which generate clarity and perspective.

This week, do not put smart people to work within dumb systems, improve your proactive coaching, and rethink execution.

Have a great week,


Geery Howe, M.A.Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer inLeadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational ChangeMorning Star Associates319 - 643 - 2257

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