Leadership Starts In The Middle, Not At The Top

Mobilizing your workforce to quickly achieve targets set by top management requires a team of managers who can effectively lead from the middle. Here’s how you can accelerate this movement in your organization.

If you believe leadership starts at the top and flows downward through the veins of the organization, then your organization is a heart attack waiting to happen. Television series like Mad Men showcase a time when leadership started at the top. The guy in the corner office with a cigar in his mouth gave the orders and everyone followed suit. Those days are long gone, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless your organization does a poor job of selecting and training leaders who reside in the middle.

Mobilizing your workforce to quickly achieve targets set by top management requires a team of managers who can effectively lead from the middle. Here’s how you can accelerate this movement in your organization.

Key in on the real movers and shakers. How does work really get done in most organizations? The CEO and directors have the titles. However, the real movement happens through middle managers. These are the people who can get the work done or slow it down. Front line managers are tasked with getting their people to do more with less. They have to explain why there will be no raises this year, even though the company is paying out record bonuses to executives, or why layoffs are in order, even though some departments are actively hiring. Some will take the challenge head on, while others will close their doors (if they have doors, that is) and hope that no one knocks.

Prepare those in charge of carrying out the marching orders for the battle that is about to take place. Leaving them in the dark and expecting them to perform at a moment’s notice is a practice that must be eliminated. Trust the people you’ve placed in management and provide them with guidance on how to handle situations that will at times feel uncomfortable.

Capitalize on ideas presented by middle managers. Middle managers are closest to the end users and are usually the first to know about problem situations. They have ideas that can turn these situations into gold mines. Middle managers at Japanese brewer Asahi are a testament to the power of what can happen when you unleash the talent that resides in the middle layers of management. Their middle-management team developed Super Dry Beer, an innovative product that allowed the company to capture new market share. This success is credited with the struggling company’s turnaround. After launching Super Dry Beer in 1987, the company doubled its market share, and today continues to boost revenues with the recent $1.3 billion purchase of the New Zealand beverage group Independent Liquor, which gives Asahi a ready-to-drink cocktail maker to add to its growing assets. None of this would have happened if Asahi hadn't taken its middle management team seriously. 

To create an innovative middle management team, you have to make it okay to try new things and to fail. Otherwise people will merely execute what they are told to do and will do nothing more.

Tap into the informal organization to catalyze great work. Much is written about the formal networks that exist in organizations. However, there is more powerful network that exists in companies. We call this the informal network, which operates behind the scenes. Here, deals are cut daily among people working in the middle layers of the organization and those they supervise.

The ability to cultivate strong relationships is a skill that can be taught. Research finds that a person’s ability to effectively maneuver around the organization (often referred to as office politics) is beneficial to both the employee and the organization. Companies who recognize this skill as vital to the success of the organization will outperform those who still believe office politics is a disease that must be contained.

Strong leadership in the middle will produce outstanding operational results, easing the need for top managers to oversee and intervene in day-to-day operations. A strong middle management team also will proactively develop a constant stream of new ideas to remedy problems and seize new opportunities. Middle management excellence is key for great overall performance.

© 2011 Human Resource Solutions. All rights reserved.

Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the President of Human Resource Solutions and author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, a Washington Post Top-5 Leadership pick. Sign up on her website for a complimentary subscription to the monthly newsletter HR Matters.

[Image: Flickr user Kuman Appaiah]

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3 Comments

  • Michelle

    Bravo! This approach with top leadership buy-in is a powder keg for success. @Sassymm10:twitter 

  • Roberta Matuson

    Thank you for taking the time to comment Melanie. I'm glad I was able to give you hope!

    Roberta

  • melanie

    Great article.  In today's economy, middle managers continue to be targeted to provide a short-term and often short-sighted boost to the bottom line.  Your article gives me hope.
     
    Many years ago, the Society for Information Management (SIM) developed a program called the Regional Leadership Forum (RLF) which is geared toward this critical layer of management.  Although it was originally developed with IT middle management in mind, the program is actually industry-agnostic. 
     
    As your article states, middle managers are critical to the success of the organization and if we do not train and nurture them they will not develop the skills necessary to become the future visionaries and strategists we need them to be.
     
    Thanks again for the vindication!

    Melanie Hirsch - Operations Director, Society for Information Management