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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Leadership Development: Leading from the Middle -- Spare Tire or Protective Padding

Are the middle ranks in an organization a "spare tire" or are they "protective padding"?  (I define the middle ranks as Manager and Director level roles which have people management and budget responsibilities.)  In today's volatile economic times, headlines are dominated by stories of doom and gloom.  The story often involves the mass lay-off of middle management as a means to find savings and "trim the fat" in times when revenues fall short and profitability seems elusive.  This strategy is often carried out to drive short-term savings, have the appearance of a healthy balance sheet and deliver the optics that dramatic change is afoot.  While this strategy may achieve these short-term goals, I often wonder how well an organization will function in the long-term.  This begs the question: are the middle ranks simply a "spare tire" or are they essential "protective padding"?

In exploring this question, I happened upon an interesting article written by Vince Thompson appearing in the November 11, 2008 edition of CBS money watch titled, "10 Reasons Why You -- Managing in the Middle -- Are More Valuable Than Your Company's CEO", which is reproduced below:

"(MoneyWatch)  Yes, that's right. Peter Drucker said, "the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer", and much of that work happens smack-dab in the middle of companies.

Sorry CEO's. We know the last few years have been tough with all of the scandals and talk about excessive pay. Now, just when you're starting to feel good again, we're throwing this at you. While it doesn't seem fair, stick with us for a minute and you'll see how we can all benefit. And don't worry--nobody is suggesting that you can't keep the town car or fly the corporate jet.

Now, ten solid reasons why You -- Managing in the Middle -- Are More Valuable than Your Company's CEO:

You know how stuff really gets done. Let's face it, process maps mean very little when you know that to get your PC up and running again, the fastest route is to buy a muffin for Oscar in IT.

You know what motivates individuals. You're with them every day. Sometimes it's cash, time off for a kid's event, or just some simple recognition. Whatever the case, you're in a position to help motivate both in- and extrinsically more than anyone else.

You know the customer well enough to get to the truth. You are them, they are you, and there's a symbiotic bond. More than anyone, the customer will tell you exactly what they need and how to sell to them.

You know the vendors as well as the competitive landscape. All that shooting the bull with Marvin, who supplies the whole industry, really pays off when he tells you that your biggest competitor is never going to get that new launch off the line. With some tweaks, your firm can make a killing!

You don't have to defend the original strategy. This is BIG! Since you didn't devise the strategy, you aren't obligated to defend it. Instead you can speak openly and tell it like it is. Do tell brothers and sisters--do tell!

You have the skills to get people of diverse backgrounds and in cross functional groups to work together. That's because you live with them every day. There's a big difference between telling people what to do and really working it out. You know how to work it out.

You know exactly what point your company is in the movie. You've been living it with the team, and more than anyone else you know if the team is ready to take the hill or go back and lick its wounds.

You know the believers. When the team needs to get motivated, you know who they turn to, and more importantly, you know what gets them fired up.

You can motivate with humor. You've got their trust; therefore you can joke a bit and have some fun. Fun is a great motivator, and you're the one best positioned to get them laughing.

You have the power to heal. When things go wrong you're best positioned to get people on the path to recovery with a vision for the future.

So why do we need you, Mr. CEO?  Well--you've done one heck of a job getting people and money in the right place. Hats off to you for that! When it comes down to it, dealing with regulations, reporting issues and testifying before congress doesn't seem like much fun either-- so thanks for that as well.

In a business world where everything is changing overnight and entire industries are being reshaped: from Manufacturing to Music, Transportation to Telecom, it's quite likely that the next great business model won't come from you but rather from us, the middle person.

So let's make a deal right now. You CEO's keep doing what you're doing and we'll be out of your hair, but when it comes to strategy, policy, employee recognition, and benefits we'd like to be in on that conversation. Deal?"

While this is not the definitive answer to the question I posed, Mr. Thompson does raise some very interesting points.  Although he pokes fun at CEO's, I think most smart CEO's do get it.  For those that don't, they too may one day find that some antsy shareholder views them as "dead weight".  


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