Translating Executive Strategy Into Team Member Work – The Task of Middle Management

Emotional intelligence is an important topic in leadership studies.  People who are emotionally intelligent are able to harness the power of human emotion and intuition and inspire their team to stay focused on the organization’s vision and mission.  At the core of emotional intelligence is the ability to understand the perspective of others.  Certainly, there is much more to this complex topic, but the truth is if you can’t see things from other people’s perspectives emotional intelligence will be difficult for you to grasp.  The unfortunate result of being at the top of an organization’s leadership pyramid is that you lose some of the ability to understand the perspective of your lower level team members.  When you’re charged with an organization’s overall strategy and direction you just don’t have the cycles to see things from the everyday team members’ perspective.  You need to contend with the board of directors, future initiatives, strategic direction, and other executive-level responsibilities.  Don’t feel this is something you need to apologize for, it’s just the nature of what you do.  You can still care deeply for those who work for you without having an understanding of what they do on a day to day basis.  Sure, you need to care about them, communicate your interest in their lives, and have a basic understanding of the work they do, but it’s more important you see the organization from a visionary perspective rather than a day to day perspective.  The problem is too many executive leaders don’t acknowledge they’re walking around with this blind spot.  When executive leadership refuses to appreciate their lack of perspective at certain levels or worse, believe it doesn’t matter, the ability for that level of leadership to inspire and influence the organization will die.  How does executive leadership overcome this problem while maintaining the energy and focus they need for the other important aspects of their job?  They recruit and keep good middle level managers.

A key role middle management plays is implementing the strategic directives of executive management and helping the front line team members understand what those directives mean for the work they do.  Additionally, middle management takes the everyday work experience of the team members and incorporates it into the vision and strategy of executive leadership.  To do this well middle managers have to be excellent interpreters of both executive directives and day to day team member life.  Middle management walks in both worlds yet belongs to neither.  They are very much aware of the situation and concerns of executive leadership yet understand the complexities and challenges strategic direction has for the day to day work the team is engaged in every day.  To do this well requires middle managers to be flexible and creative every day and with every task they are required to complete.  If they want to succeed, Middle managers need to take a two-pronged approach to their work.  

One of the best examples of how to manage this balancing act can be found in the book by Captain Abrashoff I have been discussing called “It’s Your Ship.”  In regard to seeing things from the perspective of his sailors he writes:

“My organizing principle was simple: The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew.  Only then can you find out what’s really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.

That’s a very powerful and humble statement to make.  As someone tasked with directing sailors to fulfill the mission given to him by his commanding officers, Captain Abrashoff chooses to set his ego aside and attempts to see what needs done from the perspective of the enlisted.  The enlisted are the ones that must execute the commands.  The everyday sailor is the one who sees the orders being handed down from a bottom up perspective.  Sometimes the perspective closest to the actions needing completed are the most informed and important to listen to and frequently the most ignored.  By empowering his sailors to speak into what needs done he creates a solution focused team of people, not a group of people simply geared toward pointing out problems.  They come to him with more than a list of issues, rather they include potential solutions as well because they know the Captain is able to see things from their perspective and empower them to do their work.

And how does he motivate them to fix what needs to be fixed in order to be a mission-ready ship?  How does he make sure that what he hears from his team is appreciated?

“I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s… My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out.  To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs but also to have fun as they did them.”

So what we find here is a leader ready to listen to what the day to day work of his team has to say about getting things done.  However, it doesn’t stop there.  Captain Abrashoff had to report to his commanding officers in the Navy.  He couldn’t just do what he wanted, he had to also be mindful of what his leadership required, the strategy they proposed, and the vision and direction they have for the Navy.  In order to incorporate that perspective into what his crew was proposing as necessary changes he writes:

“You have to train yourself in leadership, and you can’t afford to wait until you get promoted to begin the process.  While you’re still an individual contributor, learn to think like your boss, so when the day comes to be a leader, you’re ready to step right in with your game plan in hand.”

Middle managers need to think like their boss.  When you can do that you’re able to anticipate what needs done and take your team’s feedback on how to get it done into an executive level discussion with your boss.  Instead of merely telling executive leadership “Here are our problems and this is what the team needs to overcome them” you can speak about the weaknesses your team identified, the solutions they propose, and indicate how they are a part of the strategic direction and initiatives of executive leadership.  Being able to frame things in a way that executives understand is as important as being able to demonstrate to your team how executive initiatives add value to the work they do.  Middle managers are master translators of business language.

There is indeed a great deal more that middle management does in regard to this part of their work, but for now, think about this and reflect on how you might improve in this area.  Ask yourself how well you see the work your organization does from the perspective of those on the front line.  Then, make sure you understand the strategic initiatives and direction executive management is implementing so you’re well versed in how these two organizational efforts can work in harmony.  If you can master this part of your work, you’re on your way to a successful career.