Malcolm In The Middle… Lead The Way

The corporate world has been delayering for a couple of decades now, shedding headcount from all levels of their organisations. When it's all said and done though there still tends to be 3 levels of stratification - the senior executives, middle management and the folks who do what gets invoiced, the workforce

When we look at what occupies each of those groups' minds, emotions and efforts here too we see 3 points of emphasis. Senior executives are, necessarily, 'futurising'. That is they are casting their eyes and minds toward the next horizon, thinking about and steering the future of the business. This takes any number of guises. Restructures. New products and/or services. Acquisitions. Divestitures. New markets... and so on. Sometimes multiple simultaneously. Their role is to see into and ensure the business has a future.

The workforce tends to be focused a little closer. Because of what they are tasked with doing every day. We call this 'operationalising'. Here I'm focused on my immediate working circumstances. Do the processes support or hinder me? Is that team on the other side of the wall, that I depend on, going to deliver their part of the process on time? Or are they going to be late? As usual. How does anybody expect me to get through this workload in that short a time? Aaaargh! Why do I have to deal with these complaining customers all the time! etc. The workforce does also have a degree of interest in the 'futurising' piece - but not to the same degree as senior executives. In fact, in my experience, the primary focus is "Do we (I) have a future?" "Are you folks in the sheltered workshop called head office making sound decisions?" Similarly, senior executives obviously spend time pondering the 'operationalisation' piece too. But hopefully not too much.

So then that brings us back to what I call the "Malcolms in the middle". That bunch of folks in positions ranging from team leader and up to business unit leader or general manager. And in my experience THIS is where the battle is lost or won. Your job? To be the catalyst. Your job requires the deftest of tightrope acts. It's all about balance. You are charged with the responsibility of ensuring your team members are engaged, enabled and empowered to do their jobs to a level of excellence. Today's job. The stuff that means we can justifiably send out invoices or collect money from our customers. AND you have to also ensure that your team members are engaged, enabled and empowered to go on the journey of the future. You need to make sure that as we evolve as a business ('cos we will at some stage) your people are 'equipped' (in the incredibly many senses of the word) for that. You need to make sure they are competent, confident and committed to do what's needed of them tomorrow... while making sure that's also true of what's needed of them today. Experience has shown me, in almost every 'organisation' I've worked with or been exposed to - from Special Forces, to LivingSocial to the elite Boy Scout Sausage Sizzle squad, 'middle management' is the most critical role to get right.

My colleagues and I have worked with countless organisations over the last decade and a half. And in almost every case where performance has been at less than desirable levels it's been because Malcolm in the Middle isn't leading the way effectively. People aren't clear on what's expected of them. Or why. They haven't been given the tools or skills to do the job. Problems fester as Malcolm puts her fingers in her ear and sings "Lah, lah, lah!". Cultures become at best apathetic. At worse, toxic. Moving from strategy to execution is lost in translation and folks spend time spinning wheels focusing on stuff that doesn't count. Yes, there are exceptions but they are that. Exceptions.

At the core of our teachings is the notion that "The purpose of leadership is to take the organisation, through its people, to a place beyond where it is now. It is to gather and sustain forward momentum". We believe that, ultimately, the purpose of leadership is to create and sustain a 'culture of leadership' where everybody is willing and able to commit autonomous 'acts of leadership' in the best interests of all stakeholders. For those folks charged with that daily responsibility we observe that their role consists of a "series of considered actions and behaviours which will engage, enable and empower an individual or a team to be able to deliver on short to medium term objectives." To truly realise that though we have to invest in and help 'the Malcolms'. As far as I know, there isn't an operating system upgrade yet available to be downloaded and installed into Malcolms when they are promoted. The OS has to be upgraded manually.

The brightest minds with the cleverest strategy will be brought undone without effective execution. And with very rare exceptions that means 'middle managers' catalysing today and tomorrow. Is your organisation investing in the right resources? And to all you 'Malcolms in the Middle'... Lead the way!

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