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Monday, May 04, 2009

Leading from the Middle

Leading from the top is difficult. In my opinion, leading from the middle is just as much if not more difficult.

When you are in the middle, you serve as a channel of communication between the top of the organization and the bottom. The people at the top expect you to align others with organization directions, while the people below expect you to look after their welfare and take care of them as they take care of you. there will be times when what one party wants does not sit well with the other party. I imagine a lot of challenges just by being in this position like:

There are some leadership decisions that you either do not understand or agree with that you have to pass on to your staff. How do you get people's buy-in on something that you do not buy into yourself?

How do you contribute your ideas to shaping the organization when there is no forum or venue available for you to do so?   How do you effectively manage your team when you are not provided with sufficient training or tools for leadership and management?

These are real concerns that I myself confronted during the course of my being in the middle of the organizational hierarchy. Let me share some of my thoughts on these.

I think that there are no perfect organizations and very few come close to being one. Have I been to any of them? no. None of them come even close. Something always gives. Not enough leadership, not enough resources, not enough creativity, not enough smart people, not enough commitment from people. Because organizations are almost always wanting of resources both material and or esoteric, the leader's challenge whether at the top or in the middle is cut out for him/her. As I focus on the role of the leaders from the middle, I'd like to share my thoughts on the challenges I mentioned above.

I believe that it is the top leaders' job to communicate clearly how the organization should move and at which direction. They should provide clarity and secure buy-in on strategies and actions. If the middle managers feel however, that the communication is lacking, they summon their own leadership instinct to inform the people from the top that some issues are not well understood and needing of more explanation. If they don't agree with some policies or strategies, they summon their own leadership initiative to make their disagreement and its reasons known. Good leaders know that challenging top management decision is not an act of disrespect. On the contrary, it is an act of respect. In my previous job, I often disagree with what my boss wants to do. My boss was many years my senior and has been in business long enough to know what he is talking about but whenever it happens that I disagree, I ask for a permission to speak my mind and he always grants it. I would express my opinion or concerns and he would listen. At times he would realize that I'm right and change his decision, at time I would realize that he's right so I buy in to what he wants to do. Before the buying in from either side happens, there are a series of exchanges of ideas and scenarios being played out. Because there is mutual respect, the exchanges have always been honest but polite. I've built enough good relationship with my bosses for them to allow such honest and respectful communication around issues and strategies.

There were times when I can't agree with my boss' decision but have to communicate the same with my staff. When I was a younger leader,I found my way out by saying, this is management decision, it is not mine. I was just ordered to implement it, so implement it we must. I realized later however that this is not the right way to do it. A solid organization is lead by solid leadership team. By that I mean from top managers to middle managers and supervisors. leaders must accept that they answer to the leadership team first and foremost. They go to their respective departments or sections as representatives of that team and not the other way around. This means that when the leader of the leadership team makes a decision after the exhanges of ideas and opinions were exchanged, everyone in the team must achieve clarity and buy in even if they don't agree with it in the beginning. There should be no excuses or no washing of hands on the issues or decisions made.

On the question of contributing one's ideas for the betterment of the organization when there is no forum or venue available for the contribution of ideas, I believe that a leader must learn how to open that forum or venue. I like it when the organizational leaders say that their door is always open and that you can walk in to bring your concern or ideas. It makes it easy for me to sell my ideas to them. Even if they don't say those things however, I never let it stop me from selling my ideas to them. There are a couple of tricks I learned when selling my ideas to top management, chief of them is learning how to sell. I realize now that a previous article proposing that HR Managers should learn how to sell apply equally to other middle managers. Read about it here.

Now, how do you effectively manage your team when management does not provide for training or effective tools you can use? The answer is be resourceful. While it is top management's responsibility to provide the tools and that their  failure to do so will be to their own undoing, remember that everyone in the organization is a stake holder to the company's well being. If and when management lack the resources or imagination to equip its employees, a mindful leader from the middle uses his innate resources to strengthen her team so that they are equipped and motivated to contribute to the organization's success. While it looks like it's a lot of hard work on something that a leader might not be aptly compensated to do, the experience teaches the leader to become better and more prepared to take on bigger responsibilities in the higher rungs of the organizational career ladder.

I found the book of John Maxwell entitled 360 Degrees Leader as a substantial and inspiring read on leading from the middle or lower. If you find your self dealing with the dilemmas of middle management. I strongly recommend this book.

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