i4cp's research into high-performance organizations--and the keys to successful business strategy execution--found that one of the key performance indicators most highly correlated with market performance is the alignment of middle managers to the business strategy.
Why are middle managers so important to business strategy?
According to i4cp's 2012 report, Talent Management in the Trenches, the role of line managers is critical to achieving organizational performance goals and business results. Additionally, numerous scholarly works have been written specifically on the ability of middle managers to derail business strategy execution (Middle Management's Strategic Influence and Organizational Performance by Steven W. Floyd and Bill Wooldridge; Middle Managers' Role in Strategy Implementation - Middle Managers View by Heini Ikävalko and Petri Aaltonen; Strategy implementation versus middle management self‐interest by William D. Guth, Ian C. Macmillan, just to name a few) and the findings suggest that middle managers have a very strong ability to cause the failure of a business strategy execution plan. Most commonly, this failure is brought on by middle managers feeling personally threatened by the direction of the strategy, which is avoidable.
How do we help middle managers tune in to the needs of the business?
1. Understand the context
Humans are wired to resist change--it's in our neural programming. So it's a no-brainer that we resist change because we instinctively perceive it as detrimental. And depending on the amount of power and control exercised by a middle manager, his or her reaction to change could vary greatly. Creating the opportunity for middle managers to have some sort of control, perhaps in varying methods of implementation rather than specific and unchangeable directives, fosters relationships, provides a sense of ownership, and reduces the likelihood of resistance.
2. Provide coaching on the new strategic direction
Coaching is more than simply imparting new methods or techniques. As shown in Creating a Coaching Culture, many top organizations are using coaching as a way of driving engagement and knowledge sharing. Connecting middle managers to the broader business strategy helps create a dialogue about strategy execution, rather than a top-down directive.
3. Create a tool that illustrates how organization goals are related to managerial goals
Communication is one of the most important influential factors when it comes to the success or failure of a business strategy execution plan. The message should be succinct and reinforced often in a form that clearly articulates how their efforts play into the larger strategy. Simple graphics are perfect for this.
4. Design measurement metrics that communicate to managers how they are performing
Feedback and accountability is the mantra here. Too often, there is a big push at the beginning of a company-wide initiative, only to be forgotten as time passes. Consider sending a dashboard of initiative-related metrics to middle managers on a weekly basis. Allowing managers to see how their section is performing in comparison to others will help reinforce strategy and the other areas outlined above: communication, coaching, and clarity.
Focusing on the strategy execution of middle management is valuable, but it's important to remember that executives and line-level employees are critical components of success as well. The business machine functions best when all of the pieces work together properly and efficiently; middle managers are a vital cog, and if they are not correctly aligned, the entire machine can come grinding to a halt.