Unfreezing the middle: how to unleash your middle management potential

Ice melting
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In just the last few months, I’ve heard many executives say, "We are frozen in the middle." These leaders are frustrated that their organisations are stuck by misaligned goals, unclear accountabilities and poor handoffs between levels of leadership.   Others have added, “We have good people. What is going on?”

Executives want help unfreezing the middle and in resolving the leadership issues that stand in the way of achieving the needed results.

Addressing this need is fertile but under-leveraged territory for leadership development. Taking advantage of this opportunity is one of the ways we can address the confidence gap between what executives hope that leadership development can do and the reality of the outcomes it produces.   

So, how can leadership development unfreeze the middle?  How can we break the ice jam that stalls progress and liberates the unfulfilled potential for leadership that exists in organisations? 

High impact training

Leaders are not helped by many of today’s leadership development programmes. These programmes do not adequately address the critical need for today’s leaders to ‘pull up and pull across.’

By this, I mean aligning efforts up and down levels of leadership as well as across organisational boundaries. 

Achieving results in today’s highly dynamic business environment requires leaders that maintain synchronized pursuits of well-defined, aligned goals.

Yet, research tells us that this is not commonplace. The prescription as Jim Collins, the renowned author of ‘Good to Great,’ reminds us –is to recognise that successful leadership is 1% vision and 99% alignment.  

This is why high impact training is key - it’s all about enablement....

High impact leadership development helps leaders synchronize their problem solving and decision making with other levels of leadership.

It teaches leaders how to cascade and align goals vertically as well as horizontally, so they can better delegate outcomes to next level leaders, consult with peers, and refine and maintain clear objectives with senior leaders to keep goals on track.

It also teaches leaders to be more agile when it comes to problem solving by helping them to focus on the right problems with the necessary know-how and creativity while preserving the big picture priorities.

Take airline companies as an example of the vital importance of helping people of different levels to solve problems together.

Aircrew development programmes train crews to coordinate problem solving in dynamic and time-compressed decision environments. Crews learn how to work against the natural tendency for excessively rigid hierarchy to evolve among people of different ranks, while preserving the accountabilities and division of labor needed for quick, high quality decisions.

But to be successful, alignment is ultimately about leaders having the courage to speak up if they feel there’s a goal compatibility and alignment problem.

This ‘achievement-based candor’ as the long-serving Chairman and CEO of General Electric and business management guru Jack Welch calls it, suppresses the attack-and-defend cycles which limit meaningful collaboration among leaders.

Remember that you’re part of a ‘Leadership system’ and that it is vital to appropriately challenge others no matter their level of seniority. 

Multi-rater feedback

Multi-rater surveys also support cross-leadership learning by providing insights from senior, peer and junior colleagues to illuminate blind spots that interfere with skillful, cross-level problem solving.

By combining this feedback with access to coaches, leaders can help overcome especially challenging skill gaps and achieve more with and through others. 

Train intact teams

Finally, to help leaders to ‘pull up and pull across,” train ‘intact’ teams – teams of people from various functions and levels that will come together in real life work.

Some airlines engage aircrews in classroom and simulations of challenging real-world scenarios. Having participants work through these challenging situations in simulations and then debriefing what worked and what didn’t, improves the way they apply their new-found skills at work. 

Combine learning and ‘doing’ in real life work

Once the foundations have been laid to teach leaders how to ‘pull up and pull across’, then the next step to unfreezing the middle is to help leadership teams apply their learnings in the real world.

Many organisations periodically convene teams comprised of multiple levels of leaders who work on shared strategic initiatives.

Such meetings are excellent opportunities to learn and do differently. The agendas for such meeting include helping people acquiring the skills needed for clarifying and solving shared problems and then apply new skills to pressing work challenges.

Developing people as they are ‘doing’ work is an evolving trend in today’s time-compressed and problem-rich work environments.

Many executives worry that the cadre of leaders in their organisations are not able to drive the change that matters.

Leadership development can contribute to leadership performance in a powerful and under-used way. With a few smart investments, from high impact training to training intact teams, leadership development can help leaders to ‘think and do’ differently and in ways that will thaw the frozen potential that is stuck in the middle.   

About Tom Rose, Ph.D.

Tom Rose, a leading psychologist and global head of Innovation and Customer Solutions at  AchieveForum,

Tom Rose is a leading psychologist and global head of Innovation and Customer Solutions at AchieveForum, a global organisation specialising in leadership development.  Tom has also written a book called Managing the Leading Edge, to be published in 2017.

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