Middle management development and training is important, because it fills in the missing piece of most organizations. What is that missing piece, exactly?
High performance attributes at every level of the organization.
Most organizations prioritize training and development for senior leadership, but neglects the middle tier of leadership – the managers and directors. In this scenario, the senior executives are accelerating their growth, while the rest of the company is left behind.
We wouldn’t say this phenomenon makes training for senior leadership ineffective, but the impact of focusing training efforts exclusively on senior leadership is limited to the capacity of the middle managers who are responsible for implementing visionary strategy from above.
This is why Hallett Leadership strongly believes that the best ROI on training and development comes from targeting the middle tier of management. Since this level is responsible for translating strategy into daily work activities, and forms the functional link between the C-Suite and the rank and file, we have learned through 27 years of experience that cultivating high performance leadership in the middle tier transforms organizations into places where high performance is the new normal state of affairs.
When every level of the organization is operating at a high performance level, directives and strategies issuing down from above are most effectively realized and turbulence most effectively dealt with, setting in motion a virtuous cycle leading to increased retention, efficiency, competitiveness and profitability.
Having described what we consider to be the best area of focus for training and development – the middle management layer of the organization – how does training and development fit within the organizational life cycle, and at what, exactly, should such efforts aim to ensure success?
Evolution of Natural Systems
Every cultural form created by human beings corresponds to a natural phenomenon. A company is in a very real sense a living organism. It is conceived and created by human beings. It can grow, and it can decline. It can thrive, and it can struggle. It is a fascinating phenomenon, because if one were to take away its physical place of business and fire all of its employees, it still exists if it remains an active legal entity on some state or national database, or if it retains stock and shareholders.
On the flip side of the coin, a company’s name and legal status could change from one day to the next, and employees could theoretically still show up to work, fire up their computers, generate work outputs and take meetings with each other. Though the legal status of the company may have changed or ceased altogether, there are living organisms at work in a common enterprise, and therefore, one could say that since people are present working together toward a common aim, the company still exists as an embodied idea in the hearts, minds, and daily activities of a group of people. It remains a living entity. A natural system.
All natural systems follow a path of growth that inevitably leads to a period of struggle, or challenge, and then either ascends the path of growth again (evolution) or declines toward the end of its allotted time (extinction.)
We like to use this image to represent this evolution of natural systems:
The Growth Phase
The left side of the diagram above represents a very exciting growth phase in the life of a company. Here, the company is ascendant.
The company has taken an idea to market, or a series of products or services that the marketplace receives with open arms. The future looks bright. Soon, there is more to be done than can be accomplished by the workforce, and new people must be added to the team.
In this stage of growth, the company has succeeded through adopting a certain way of doing things. Whether stated implicitly or explicitly, this way of doing things expresses a unique culture, in which all members of the organization participate. People who don’t fit the organizational culture end up working elsewhere, while people who fit well into the culture remain. This implicitly or explicitly-expressed culture also attracts workers who match the cultural profile.
In most cases, senior leadership avoids tampering with the organizational way of doing things, or culture, as long as the company remains profitable continues to grow. This is because human beings, and the companies they create, as natural systems subject to the evolutionary process, tend to be very, very conservative when it comes to changing default settings, fixed beliefs and automatic behaviors.
As the old adage goes: if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
All Systems Go: A Thriving Studio
At the beginning of this century, I was among members of senior leadership at 20th Century FOX. Things were going very, very well. We were riding the left side of the diagram – an exciting growth phase.
During this period, FOX was releasing one hit movie after another. After global theatrical release, properties were passed like relay batons to home entertainment, which released them on DVD. Our DVD business was going gangbusters.
At the time, separate divisions of the studio operated as semi-independent entities – with their own processes, protocols, and even sub-cultures. Divisions could be known to withhold information with each other, and generally, each division did things without the input of other divisions.
Inconsistent communication could be a nuisance at times, and trust among people of different divisions – or even within the same division – wasn’t always would it could be – but FOX had good reason to pride itself on its self-starting, enterprising culture. It got results! People displayed a willingness to roll up their sleeves, hammer out solutions to problems, and get things done.
The siloed tendency of our organizational culture, and our vulnerability in the areas of communication and collaboration, wasn’t really an issue while business was booming. 2008 saw the release of Avatar, then the highest-grossing film of all time. Things couldn’t have been better – the studio was truly thriving.
And then, as if overnight, things changed. Technological innovation disrupted the entire entertainment industry. Video-on-demand appeared on the scene. It became obvious that our business models would need to change with the times… and in order to accomplish that, we needed to figure out how to work together in an entirely new way.
We also anticipated that this process wouldn’t be easy. Remember – the evolutionary process of natural systems is such that change isn’t exactly easy to achieve. The process of pivoting to a new, collaborative culture unlike any we had experienced before was, likewise, not going to be easy to achieve.
At the very top of its growth cycle, every natural system (including a company) hits a plateau.
“Plateau” is the common word we use to describe what happens when a natural system advances from growth to the stage of struggle. The issue with the word plateau is that it suggests images of a high desert, or some other flat terrain where the only irritation, ostensibly, is boredom. At least, struggling isn’t as normally as exciting as the growing and expanding.
Rather than a flat, boring line, the so-called plateau might be more accurately represented as a squiggly line below:
This is a period of challenge and struggle. Something more akin to navigating a field of treacherous boulders that cannot be simply bypassed, but meticulously scaled one after another.
In a time of struggle, progress is achieved through a disproportionate exertion of effort relative results. Results, which the squiggly line graph shows, aren’t necessarily optimal. Unlike the earlier growth phase where victories occurred in succession, victory during the struggle phase is humbler – like choosing to keep struggling on another day instead of giving up, or passing another boulder in the road and preparing to scale the next one. The participant can only cash these victories in if they make it out of struggle and successfully regain the growth cycle (evolution) again. Such victories make excellent war stories – long after the fact – for public speaking engagements or mentoring young executives.
Confronting Struggle Head-on… With All Hands On Deck
Fortunately for FOX, senior leadership confronted the new period of struggle and uncertainty head-on. But instead of mandating change from above, we adopted a different strategy.
Senior leadership knew that in order to adapt and discover a new path toward thriving in an emerging new era in entertainment, the studio would have to change in fundamental ways. We were going to have work more collaboratively. We were going to have to foster trust among the different divisions and among people in every position. We would need to establish horizontal lines of communication and efficient, collaborative processes among the divisions.
Given that leaders of separate divisions came up the ranks in the old system, and until this point had administered their teams largely without input from non-C-Suite peers, we knew that this process might be challenging and slow at times, and would require a great deal of tact and diplomacy.
Again, in order to initiate this transformation in our approach to doing business – a very delicate process – we opted for persuasion and voluntary buy-in instead of simply mandating. More likely than not, a mandate would have resulted in passive or even active resistance.
In favor of mandating change from the top-down, we decided to pull everyone in the studio into the same room to discuss what kind of culture everyone wanted to belong to.
The “Worst” Time is the Best Time For Training & Development
Executives often assert that times of struggle are the worst times to budget any of their employees’ precious bandwidth for training and development. There is sound logic in this. Unfortunately, the logic is reactive, instead of responsive.
What do we mean by this?
Refusing to administer training and development during a time of struggle by asserting that people need to focus on continuing to struggle, creates a sort of double-bind. In this scenario, the company gets to stay “busy” with the struggle at hand, but at precisely the moment when new thinking is required. New thinking to yield creative solutions and fresh insights to escape the struggle period and initiate a new phase of growth and profitability.
In the struggle phase, the organization struggles because the world has changed, or because there are dynamics at play in the organizational culture that have led to stagnation. Most often, the cause of the struggle is a blend of external and internal factors.
Whatever the reason might be, the assumptions, fixed beliefs, and automated behaviors that worked yesterday (or may have appeared to be working) are no longer effective. Therefore, continuing to drive team members to address the current environment with the old way of doing things is a dubious strategy at best, and at worst, a catastrophic one.
Therefore, the “worst” of times is actually the best time to initiate training and development – even if budgeting a portion of team members’ time away from work activities seems like a terrifying thing to do.
At Hallett Leadership, the first thing we do with organizations that decide to take the leap and initiate the training and development process, is STOP.
Stop all automatic behaviors, then LOOK at what is working (and what is not.)
Having temporarily stepped out of the existing behaviors and paradigms to assess the current state of affairs, team members are primed to CHOOSE the best steps forward…
Create An Open & Trusting Environment, Leading With Authenticity
The first step in re-imagining the studio culture was to figure out what that culture was. To achieve this, senior leadership sent out a call for all employees to convene in a large assembly, with the intention of eliciting everyone’s voices and input on what that culture could look like.
It is one thing for leaders to say that everyone’s voices are welcomed to the table – it is another for employees to believe it. In order to believe it, senior leadership had to model open dialogue by communicating authentically. For senior leadership, this required speaking openly and candidly to everyone about the current state of affairs, and that we were truly open to listening to everyone’s perspective and input.
Then we listened. People began to open up and begin a forthright and candid discussion about the current state of fairs, and what our desired culture could be.
Bringing Everyone To The Table To Create A Shared Vision
As in the story above, training and development focused on leading an organization from a period of struggle to a new period of growth and prosperity requires getting buy-in from everyone in the company around a common vision.
Before any talk of strategies or tactics for overcoming a period of struggle, consider inviting everyone in your company to openly and honestly discuss the current state of affairs, and what the desired organizational culture might be.
Once articulated, this desired culture can serve as a True North, because soon everyone will return to their respective departments and the old culture will still be active. As projects and work activities resume, the inertia of the old way of doing things will require extra energy and attention to overcome. The desired culture is a reference point for people to return to, and make corrections as needed.
At FOX, the people of the studio articulated their desired culture as follows:
To be an open and collaborative culture, where creativity and innovation thrive.
The importance of sourcing this desired culture from the people of the company cannot be overstated. Because everyone was present and took part in the formulation of this desired culture, people were invested in it. They believed in it. Finally, senior leadership took this statement very, very seriously and applied effort to embody it in their daily activities just like everyone else.
With buy-in from everyone in the company around the stated desired culture, it is possible to achieve the first step in your training and development efforts, which is to bring everyone into alignment around the common vision of the desired company culture.
What Is Meant By Alignment?
When we refer to alignment, we’re attempting to describe an orientation to work. An orientation which, our experience has shown, leads to the best business outcomes.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate alignment is to describe its two alternatives: Unalignment, and Command & Control.
Think of the large arrow diagram below as a company. That company is pointing itself in a direction – the direction of its business, its drive to be profitable, competitive, and whatever else its owners and stakeholders desire it to be.
Within the company are its workers, represented by the small arrows below. In Unalignment, each of the small arrows within the large arrow are pointing in their own directions. Some in the same, or approximate direction of the larger company, as others go in their own directions (while continuing to collect a salary).
In this condition of Unalignment, the company may be moving in its desired direction, but at great cost. Tremendous friction is caused from the unaligned state of its workers. Communication may be rocky or worse, processes inconsistent or downright unreliable, and perhaps most notably, people are not as happy working in this company as they could be. No one is able to get their best work done, and they don’t really have a say in the direction of a company. They obey orders… mostly, or they passively (or even actively) resist.
No company can thrive, or at least not in the long term, while operating in Unalignment. Simply put, it represents a leadership void.
Command & Control
The next strategy represents an improvement over the previous one, and it is called Command & Control. This is the traditional way of doing business (or running an army.)
In this scenario, the organization is moving in a set direction, and all workers fall into line. Leadership says, “we’re going this way!” and everyone obeys and begins marching in the same direction.
The people complying with orders are the small black arrow running through the middle of the big arrow.
Command & Control can be an effective strategy. It all depends on how shrewd and capable senior leadership is. If senior leadership makes a mistake, then the company and all of its people careen into the downside of leadership’s decision-making.
While Command & Control strategy can mobilize a workforce quickly, it has two major vulnerabilities:
The first is that the company is not benefiting from the input and diverse viewpoints of their employees. Leadership is preoccupied with formulating strategy and giving orders, then managing everyone to make sure everyone is doing their tasks correctly – i.e. micromanaging.
The loss of the ability to gather the best insights and information from everyone in the company never appears on a balance sheet. It is unmanifested potential, and therefore cannot be known because it never surfaced in the first place.
The second liability of Command & Control is that while people might obey and fall and line, levels of engagement and motivation among them vary widely. People who only obey orders are relieved from sharing in responsibility for outcomes. They skew towards passivity. Work outputs may not be as good as they could be, and if an initiative fails, people can shrug their shoulders and say: “Hey, I did what the boss said… nothing else I can do about it.”
Command & Control is the predominating style of leadership today and yesterday – yet studies show that as the world becomes more volatile, complex and ambiguous, companies confront the challenge of becoming more collaborative, versatile, nimble and adaptive – all qualities that are difficult to find in a single commanding and controlling individual leader or group of leaders.
The Aligned Workforce
The diagram below represents an alignment.
This configuration keeps the positive qualities of the previous two, while omitting the downsides.
Like the Unaligned workforce, each of the small arrows, or workers, operate with a degree of autonomy within the context of the large arrow, or company.
Like Command & Control, each of the small arrows are pointing in the same direction as the larger arrow or company.
Bringing everyone into alignment around a common vision, or a shared desired culture, results in buy-in from all participants. Unlike the worker in a Command & Control scenario who defers all responsibility for outcomes onto leadership, the worker in the Aligned organization is incentivized to have some skin in the game. They have chosen of their own free will to participate in a larger effort, and are willing to take on personal responsibility for individual and team accomplishments – and failures.
In other words, workers become stakeholders. Or leaders.
Finally, workers operating as stakeholders often express higher levels of engagement with their work, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices to ensure that the group is successful. Operations become more efficient, and the team can make real progress toward realizing the common vision.
Alignment is the cornerstone of a training and development effort focused on reinventing organizational cultures toward high performance.
The Cycle Begins Again
A training and development program that begins with aligning a group of people around a common vision for a desired company culture has a real chance at achieving its aim – to enter into a renewed growth phase, and transform the organization into a place where high performance is the normal state of affairs.
And then, the cycle begins again…
Thank you for reading, and best of luck. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if your organization currently seeks to chart a new course through uncertain times.