View from the middle


Hello up there.

As the name of the column implies, I'm writing to you from the world of middle management. You know, the world above overtime pay but below the golf-club membership.

It's something I've been passionate about for years, and interview dozens of thought leaders for my podcast, The Cranky Middle Manager Show

Mention the words "middle management" to most people and, depending on your generation, you get an image of Dilbert's point-haired boss, the "Man in The Grey Flannel Suit", or some other pathetic soul who has realized if he's old enough to remember the "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" and still in Middle Management, he's become him and he should just have the decency to roll over and die. But this isn't about me…

It's about recognizing the value of people in the middle levels of your organization and planning and investing accordingly in order to reap the long-term results of retention, productivity and good morale throughout your organization.

Actually that's not entirely fair. Study after study shows that "C-Level" executives list "finding, developing and retaining good managers" as one of their top ten priorities, so they do recognize the importance. I don't recall the exact number but it's right below "implementing our vision with integrity" and slightly higher than, "It's the middle of the night in Bangalore, can't we outsource to somewhere in this @$#%%@#$^& time zone?"

Put bluntly, the problem isn't simply recognizing what these people bring to the table. It's valuing the role enough to invest the time and resources necessary to make the role strategic, rather than simply tactical.

What this column will do each month is focus on the four disciplines of management and how they impact organizations from strategy to sales numbers.

The Four Disciplines of Management
To have an effective Management team, the organization must have people who are at least conversant, if not fluent, in what I am calling the Four Disciplines of Management. They are:

1. Business Acumen: Do your managers know how your business is run? This includes not just the basics of reading a P and L, but do they know how your business is run. Do they understand what every department does and why? You'll hear the term "Disciplinary Xenophobia" a lot. That's the fear and loathing of other departments that gets in the way of good implementation. It also explains why HR gets those funny looks. You know what I'm talking about.

2. Leadership and Career Development: Are your managers the kind of ethical leaders you want? Do they lead with vision- or more importantly the same vision as you have? Are they capable of getting the job done while grooming future managers and identifying talent? Do they know what you want from them and can they navigate the minefields of office politics without blowing themselves- and the organization- sky high?

3. Project and Process Management: Do they have the skills and know how to use the tools that allow them to analyze processes, manage projects and recognize bottlenecks when they see them? Are you prepared to hear from them when they do?

4. Communication Skills: It's really pretty simple, but that doesn't make it easy. We communicate in 4 ways- we read, write, speak and listen. Everyone possesses these in different quantities but management requires different skills than being a top individual contributor. Anyone who's ever watched a top salesman melt down as a manager know this to be true.

Do you have a system in place to identify, coach, develop and reward the right communication behaviors in your team? This is more important than ever in a virtual world where you can't "poke your head in to see how the team's doing".

Let's take at one of these - Communication Skills. This is more than hiring managers with "good people skills"….which is a lot like hiring someone because they are an excellent example of homo sapiens. It doesn't mean a whole lot unless you know what that looks like and why it matters to your organization.

Ask most business leaders how important communication is, they'll tell you it's vital.

Ask them how much they're investing in it and they'll tell you they've spent millions of dollars on the latest IT tools and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software.

Ask them how effective human communication is in their company, and they'll likely tell you about the millions of dollars they've invested in the latest IT tools and CRM software. They don't have the foggiest clue…and that lack of knowledge can mean the loss of hard dollars (or yuan, or euros) or worse.

Here's a scary example. The University of Toronto did a study of communication in the operating room. The team put in 90 hours of observation in the Operating Room and here's what they saw:

  • 421 communication events were noted, of which 129 were categorized as communication failures. Fully 1/3 of all communication didn't hit the mark.
  • 45% of instances the problem was timing- people weren't there to hear what was said or were busy doing other things and didn't hear or understand the message.
  • 35% of errors were "content"-information was missing or inaccurate.
  • 20% of the time, the intended audience didn't get the message because key individuals were excluded.

While you may not be able to see the direct connection between this and your accounting project team, it does explain why my wife went in to get an ingrown toenail removed and came home without tonsils. (She's fine, thanks- she usually wears closed toed shoes anyway and she gets fewer colds now).

Here's what company leaders need to take away from this study.

Well over a third -36.4% - of failures resulted in visible effects on system processes including inefficiency, team tension, resource waste, workaround, delay, patient inconvenience and procedural error. That's real money, even in Canadian dollars.

In many organizations project success is not a matter of life or death- it's more important than that.

There are three components to communication…a) the sender b) the receiver and c) how the message gets understood between a) and b). IT tools are part of the process, but without paying attention to the human dimensions of communication, the overall improvement you expect may not happen. In fact, people can now do things badly quicker than ever. Some ROI isn't it?

Now, how important is communication to your company?

Watch this space in the coming months for more information on finding, retaining and helping your middle management strengthen your organization.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.