Monday, January 7, 2013

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Today, the role of the middle manager is very important. We live in a world where a global economic crisis continues, a prolonged recession ambles along, a sluggish recovery happens each quarter, and a Congress that loves to debate a host of reforms - regulatory, heath care, financial - but not make any real decisions until the very last minute. And even then, not make all of the decisions so people can plan effectively for the future.

Nevertheless, as senior executives and leaders, we need to stay focused on the development of appropriate strategy, particularly as our companies navigate through this unprecedented and prolonged period of uncertainty. We also need to remember that it is the hard work of middle managers ,who hold the day to day operations together, that significantly impacts the brand identity and the organization’s real competitive advantage.

Right now in order to be successful, middle managers need to do four specific things very well. First, they must understand the philosophical framework of the company in order to routinely bring clarity and order to confusion and chaos among the front line employees. Second, they must be deeply immersed in the day to day, tactical operations of the company in order to solve problems better, and work on alignment related issues. Third, they must oversee multiple projects in multiple stages and maintain a vast network of people and resources in order to manage all of the projects to a successful conclusion or measurable outcome. Fourth, they must utilize a diverse set of assessment tools in order to routinely deliver improved performance at the individual and department levels. In essence, every day middle managers must lead and coach people who directly impact front line service and product delivery. 

At the exact same time, middle managers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Most of their work takes place in the space between clarity and ambiguity which does not co-exist peacefully. Many organizations and, in particular, many mid-level managers are suffering from constant change, reorganization fatigue, economic uncertainty, and strategic ambiguity. Most just want some black and white answers to basic operational and strategic questions. All they get these days is  “it depends” as an answer.

During the coming months in this blog, I will be exploring the role of the middle manager, and the key skills and knowledge they will need to have in order for all of us to be successful in 2013 and beyond. The first step in this journey is to recognize that many middle managers suffer from and have to deal with strategic and context blindness.  Strategic blindness is defined as the lack of ability or understanding to see our strategy as a whole organization. Context blindness takes place when we can see the whole organization but we can not see the environmental context within which the whole organization is working and moving through. In the beginning, when helping middle managers improve, assess which kind of blindness is taking place and then help them to eliminate it through improved coaching, education and dialogue. This will make a world of difference in their capacity to solve problems.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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