Change Happens Inside Out – Driven By Middle Managers
Management consultants can spend way too much mental capital on relabeling old, durable ideas with new taglines and buzz phrases. But, McKinsey is hitting the right note with an article titled “Delighting in the Possible” even with its awkward new leading to possibilities buzz phrase.
Change moves at the speed of an electron in 2015, and tried-and-true methods for dealing with unexpected challenges no longer reliably generate the results managers expect. In the article, McKinsey calls this old leadership habit “managing the probable” in a recent article and fingers it as one impediment to great leadership. We agree: It is risk-averse. Most managers stick with tried-and-true processes because they assume a fresh approach to problem-solving carries more career risk if it fails.
As the McKinsey article makes clear, though, to truly lead you must challenge current methods to deal with issues (large or small). You must unlock fresh insights and new paths forward. We agree, again: “Tackling chronic problems in new ways” describes the results we get out of just about every team-building program we do with clients.
Mind you, senior management has to adopt the mindset that experimentation is a rewarding exercise, and not pound down initiatives by punishing failure. This “failure to delight” remains a big challenge. The authors still find it necessary to counsel executives to open their minds. To wit:*
- Take the perspective of someone who frustrates or irritates us. What might that person have to teach us?
- Seek out the opinions of people beyond our comfort zone. The perspectives of, among others, younger people, more junior staff, and dissatisfied customers can be insightful and surprising.
- Listen to what other people have to say. We should not try to convince them to change their conclusions; we should listen to learn. If we can understand their perspectives well enough, we might even find that our own conclusions change.
Permission to Fail, Sir?
Middle managers too often try to manage change by falling back on processes that worked in the past. They do this because change is scary and it is comforting to use well-known coping methods that don’t compound the discomfort. This bad habit limits their ability to break paradigms and find new paths to sustainable, profitable activities.
- A successful organization needs one clear overarching mission that drives its actions. The care and husbanding of that mission is the province of the executives who lead the organization.
- The execution of that mission happens further down in the organization, in the ranks of the middle managers who marshal the resources and keep them aligned with the mission.
Pressure to change is outside in: The marketplace for the products and services dictate how they need to answer consumer problems. But the action the organization needs to take to respond to that outside pressure must come from within, or “inside out.”
The authors share in some detail the mindset shifts that we recommend to break these comfortable but unproductive old management habits, but it comes down to our core philosophy:
- Pursue the Truth by actively seek new knowledge and opinions to challenge your thinking
- Communicate in ways that count (i.e.; forward-thinking and action-oriented)
- Build unshakable trust through consistency of action and accountability
This expanded thinking is a natural outcome of the work we do with teams of middle managers, unshackling their problem-solving from the tried-and-true and giving them permission to think about chronic problems in fresh ways.
- They are the ones who teach the organizational culture to new hires.
- They are the ones who engage their followers in the mission, and only if they agree with the mission and marching orders they receive!
The mission will fail if the “lieutenants and sergeants” do not believe in the mission. And your organization is not the army. Your officers have more latitude to disobey orders and carry out the mission in ways they see fit. Without clear guidance and “buy-in” any passion these middle managers unleash in their teams will be misaligned with the mission, no matter how actively they pursue what they think the goal is!
Senior executives revel in their strategic role, but must accept and pour passion into their role as engagement drivers for middle management. Otherwise all their strategic contribution is worth little.
*We find it extremely frustrating that McKinsey still needs to encourage its audience of senior business executives to adopt these three core leadership habits. We clearly haven’t made enough progress in eliminating the need to “be the smartest person in the room” from the ranks of our executives!
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