ON HOW PEOPLE ARE LED: STUCK BETWEEN STRATEGY AND EXECUTION - WHY MID-LEVEL LEADERSHIP IS SO HARD

"Like most of us, my leadership experience sits firmly in the mid-level role: almost always as part of a much larger organisation, but tasked with delivering an effect with varying levels of authority, autonomy and room for initiative.  And, when thinking about this blog, I realise that I've been sucked into both camps during my time in these roles: one moment championing the strategy and those superiors delegating it's execution to me, and the next fiercely protective of my team as they simply try to get their job done whilst under pressure from above.  


I got it wrong on a number of occasions.  


The first example that springs to mind was at the end of my first tour in Basra.  I returned home exasperated by what I saw as the futility of our efforts after one particular occasion. Those supposedly our in-country allies had in fact conspired against us, causing hideous damage to both the broader relationship between us and them, but of course also to the unlucky victims of their sabotage.  I had mistakenly elevated myself to really focusing on the strategy but with the mindset of an operator, a tactical level leader.  I'd lost sight of the context and role for me out there.

On another occasion, this time serving on board HMS Albion, I'd managed to embarrass my Captain through a blinkered and dogged protection of my team, without giving due consideration to the wider context.  It was a minor discretion without far reaching consequences, but nevertheless one that coloured the way I think about leadership today.


There have been highlights too.  Those higher in the food-chain can also get it wrong.  I remain fiercely proud of the occasion when I had the courage to stand up to a yacht skipper whose ego got firmly in the way of providing the environment in which the aim of the sailing could be fully exploited.  On that occasion, my understanding of the purpose gave me all the fuel and substance I needed to call him out and support those on board who we were actually there to serve."

Unless you're the CEO or owner of an organisation, you sit in a leadership position that most of us are familiar with: one where you're both the leader of the team 'beneath' you and the follower of those 'above' you.  I'm going to look at how you can best manage the requirement to fit both of those roles. 


I was in a meeting only a few months ago where the group of leaders I was working with were clarifying their purpose.  'To hold our teams to account' (sic) they uttered.  It wasn't some sort of dictatorial mandate, or megalomaniacal gloat, but it was naïve.  I dare anyone to challenge the concept that genuine leadership infers accountability.  As leader, you should be the one that takes the flak in the event that action your team take (or don't) doesn't have the effect intended.  That's the responsibility that you agree to shoulder and the reason that you're rewarded as the leader.  So, truly leading those 'below' you is all about serving them, about providing the environment in which they can do what they do best, be creative, develop, progress, make mistakes and thrive.  How mistakes are dealt with is a topic for another blog, but the point is that as their leader, it's up to you to have the cahoonas to, when appropriate, protect your team if and when mistakes are made.


There are loads of great examples from the industry I am most familiar with - aviation.


"Boss, I nearly torched the engine on start".  


Phew, at least he didn't.  As the leader - 'fess up to the engineers (with the inevitable harrumphing and cussing of aircrew that requires very little to ignite), and importantly 'fess up to my boss who then has to factor in the delay and reduced airframe availability whilst all the necessary checks are carried out to ensure no real damage was done.  The boss is already up against it as we've got a date with some special forces types who need us to get them to their next target.  The consequences of my not taking the responsibility for this?  Next time, my pilot won't admit the mistake... that's a slippery slope.  Or worse still, I'll feel terrible because the hierarchy will simply push me aside and solve the problem themselves.  Again that's a lose-lose for everyone.


'Downwards' your role and responsibility as a leader are clear.  Let's spend a moment looking up.  To suggest that you're just 'following' your boss oversimplifies things.  In fact the theme that describes what you're doing for your charges, serving, is equally valid.  So we have now challenged the mid-level leader to serve everyone.  And that's hard.  Those above you want more productivity, more efficiency, more output.  Those below you want more time, more reward, more support.  What about what you want?  Just to keep everybody happy? 


And that gets to the crux of coping with the omni-directional nature of the demands on the mid-level leader. We're all human - ego, pride, desire to please, fear of failure and numerous other factors all contribute to why we might be less than perfect leaders.  But it doesn't remove the reality that you need to look after you if you're going to successfully serve everyone else.


The helicopter operators in the energy industry find themselves as whole-organisations in just this position: demands from the oil and gas giants in an intensely competitive market, whilst trying to provide the conditions that at once protect the aircraft and their crews from commercial pressure and at the same time push them to perform to their limits.  This is analogy for the mid-level leader gets to the heart of the challenge: tasked with driving performance and trying to push the envelope hard enough whilst supporting those beneath.

To maintain the service that the offshore helicopter operators do requires hard work, but it doesn't look dissimilar in nature to what the mid-level leader has to do too.

What enables this to happen?  For both the helicopter operator and the mid-level leader? Communication.  


And that's nothing new. I don't pretend to have found the silver bullet or to have invented the solution to the world's organisations' management and leadership challenges.  But it's overlooked all too often for a number of seemingly justifiable reasons. 


1. It takes time to communicate.  Significant chunks of insanely valuable time.  Whether you're under pressure to hit that sales target with only two days of the month left, on a deadline to support a client in getting their IT security back up and running yesterday, or indeed trying to make sure that the helicopter is available for the mission critical sortie, it's no surprise at all that as the mid-level leaders tasked with the responsibility of 'getting stuff done', the communication piece gets lost in the noise of delivering.  And of course, you can be sure that if you're feeling the pressure to get the urgent operational task completed, then the next level above you are only too keenly focused on it too.  


2.  Communication is a two-way street.  What you've got to communicate isn't always going to be received well or indeed in the way you want it to be.  Tasked with making tough decisions and being the change agent or individual leader required to implement strategy, there's a short term protection mechanism where perhaps not communicating or procrastinating is the easy opt out: we've all been guilty of it.


3.  There's the challenge of being in that mid-level position.  Communicating to a single audience seems simple.  But you're not just doing that.  You're having to act as the go-between and unilateral servant.  A constant flik-flak (in a traditional structure at least) from assertive to deferential.  You might have been tasked with delivering change in the organisation, but that change is seemingly glacial in it's periodicity when compared to the constant changes you have to make in your approach to communication to ensure that you keep serving everyone as best you can.  Just writing that makes me feel exhausted.


Let's look at how you can do this then, and importantly, how doing this makes your life better.

How can this help you to feel more engaged, more in control, and have more capacity to focus on the leadership of getting stuff done?  Leadership is cited by many mid-level leaders as the single skill, beyond those of business and technical that leads to the most personal success.


Keeping this super simple, the basic premise is to remove surprise.  Who needs to know what?  What does your team need to know in order to deliver what needs delivering?  What does your boss (sic) need to know in order to best support that delivery.  If one thinks about the leader's role as removing roadblocks and obstructions to their team's progress, then both you and your boss need information flow upwards to achieve this.  If you can't see the problem, you certainly can't even entertain being able to solve it.  And of course to tie this all together, what do you need to know?


In Ryan Holiday's book, 'Ego is the Enemy', much is made of the fallacy of 'knowledge is power'.  There are inevitably sensitivities surrounding aspects of a business' strategy, operations or people.  But, and this is particularly true in workplaces heavy with the so-called millennials, it's been proven time and again that in fact collaboration and transparency are powerful advocates for success.  So much so that in the aviation world, the whole concept of the cultural panacea- 'Just Culture' - is built around it.  Removing ego in pursuit of a grander objective than self-serving is key.  


Of course as the mid-level leader, you are in control of how much your ego gets in the way. It's a bit more difficult to ensure this of all of your charges, peers and superiors.  But in setting out your communication philosophy where transparency, integrity and openness are the cornerstones, you both build trust as well as setting the example.


This is all well and good I hear you say, but it doesn't remove the pressing commitments on the tactical delivery side of your role.  You can't see how to make the time to do all this communication, and just as importantly, it's even harder to justify when you can't put a tangible value on doing it.  Or can you?


Think of communication as the links in a feedback loop.  Strategy-deliverable-result-reassessment of strategy.  This is just another version of 'Plan-Do-Act-Check' captured in Deming's cycle.  If you can use communication to improve any aspect of this, well, those improvements are measurable.  Communicating a clear strategy with priorities is much more likely to yield valuable deliverables that actually satisfy the real requirement.  it will free you up too: empowering your team through giving the context and priority means that you spend less time micromanaging.  Similarly, a robust feedback mechanism, in which you are inevitably the first receiver, provides far more effective input to enable those creating strategy to do so with all the facts and operational considerations already included.  

And with that in mind, you can crack on with this whole communicating thing without feeling like it's not adding value in perhaps the same way that giving a helping hand to your team on the coal face might do.  


In a practical sense, 'communicating' ranges from formal to informal interaction.  


Understanding the real context behind what your team have been asked to deliver probably requires a planned sit down with your boss.  On the other hand, keeping in tune with your team, as scheduled as it may be in your diary, is a much less formalised affair.  In the Royal Navy it's called 'walking the patch'.  It's your chance to gauge mood, spirit, and motivation. But it's also the most powerful and useful intelligence gathering exercise you can do.  

Your dashboard might relay real time KPI status, but you need to understand what drives those fancy graphics, and the dashboard sure as hell isn't going to do that.  There was a philosophy presented to me on my very first day working for Newton Europe: "you won't find the answers in the boardroom, they'll be on the shop floor where the action is happening".


It remains true and I live by it every day. It's much the same as my experience from the cockpit. As a very green baby-pilot it was the wise instructor who again supplied the wisdom that resonates with Newton's philosophy: "what's being presented in the cockpit will never kill you, but what's outside it might".

Getting your head out of the cockpit, looking around for the clouds, other aircraft and of course the hard granite stuff is what's important.  It's also where you'll find what outcome is required and the context which serves as a powerful motivator when served to your team.


There's a deeper psychological benefit to communicating too.  As humans we're designed to interact.  Extrovert or introvert, we still need that interaction.  In the right format, it makes us feel good.  And it's easy to see how the mid-level manager could lose sight of this in the chaos of trying to oversee the performance of their team and its output whilst at the same time providing the evidence, reporting and input to their seniors to support development of strategy and keep control on the business.  But it goes further than that.  I've written about why the best ideas come to you whilst you're having a pee or out for a run: getting up and purposefully heading out to communicate gives you that environment.  Whether the conversation you have stimulates that 'aha' moment or whether just taking the 3 minutes to walk from your office to the shop floor provides the space (physical and mental), it's hugely valuable in terms of your wellbeing and groundedness.


With all that in mind, I realise that continuing to look at this screen and not get out an communicate is utterly contrary to everything above!  I'll leave it there for now.


If you want to know more about how I help teams and leaders to build their communication to drive performance and effectiveness get in touch.  Otherwise, please do join the conversation - I'd love to hear your thoughts. 


References:


https://www.ddiworld.com/DDI/media/trend-research/thenewrealityofmidlevelleadership_es_ddi.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/sites/chriscancialosi/2016/04/11/a-survival-guide-for-middle-managers-and-the-zombie-apocalypse/#4aececc63e5f


https://hbr.org/2017/03/why-being-a-middle-manager-is-so-exhausting


#midlevelleadership #servantleader #service #leadership #communication #context #purpose #unifiedpurpose

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