Fast Company

3 Tips for Reaching Line Managers, the Missing Link

People at the top have great ideas all the time. They excel at pouring over the data and finding better ways. People on the ground are in touch with the reality of day-to-day operations. They know the challenges and opportunities first-hand: it runs in their veins.

What about those guys and gals in the middle? They want to come in on time and under budget without breaking any rules. They want to be noticed for results, but don’t want a mistake that will kill their reputation. They are infamous for being a quicksand that keeps the top from effectively reaching the bottom and the bottom from educating the top, and they have their reasons.

If your organization has a significant layer of line managers, you have four choices for fixing the flow: you can go around them, over them, under them, or through them. And, if you go through them, you can do it without their blessing or with it. In the best of all worlds, the latter is ideal. But the world rarely gives us what we most want. Usually it gives us some evolutionary mess to make the best of.

Here are three tips for working with line managers to connect the top to the bottom in ways that create fast response time, better service, and improved quality:

1. Listen to what they have to say. Line managers are one of the most under appreciated points-of-view in any system. Recognize that they often want to play it safe, so make it easy for them to put their cards on the table. They have a lot of valuable information that won’t be found anywhere else about what it takes to deliver results consistently and systematically in your culture. Create a safe place for them to unburden themselves and share the truth about getting things done.

2. Stretch them up and down. This means, expand their perspective so they experience more of top management’s value and the worthy perceptions that come from being on the line. Your best line managers are not operating  in isolation, but serving every piece of the system they are connected to. Make it easy for them. Do this by including them in top management briefings, and create other opportunities for face-time with leaders. Also, encourage them to build relationships with front-line staff that go beyond formal authority – perhaps have them do stints on the line themselves, or have them work for other line managers periodically.

3. Encourage an environment that brings together these three qualities: risk-taking, strategic alignment, and delivering excellence on the ground. Challenge them to look for the sweet spot where results, strategy, and innovation pay out.  Give them the authority to practice and master experimentation.  Embrace their autonomy when it leads to these kinds of results.
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Seth Kahan has consulted for leaders in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His next book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, will be published in May 2010. Visit his other blogs, GettingChangeRight.com, helping leaders with change, and FreelanceFortune.com for techniques on how to succeed as a free agent. Read him in the Washington Post On Success. Follow Seth on Twitter and learn more about Seth's consulting at VisionaryLeadership.com.

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