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Strategy Dies in the Forgotten Middle Layer of Management

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photo by Kumar Appaiah / CC BY

Middle management is where well-intentioned business strategy goes to die.

Harvard Business Review took a thoughtful look at the strong connection between communicating management intent and achieving business success. It seems the why often gets lost in communications. It makes no sense, until you consider that mid-level managers play an important (yet under-appreciated role) translating corporate strategy, goals, and policies into specific tasks for their teams.

Remember that these people weren’t in the board room when the decisions were made and the strategy was set, but they are ultimately responsible for making or breaking a corporate initiative. They will either take the big idea and make it reality, or the grand plans will wither and die a slow death at their hands.

Their power lies in their position as the translator of concrete ideas to actionable tasks. Dictating from above doesn’t work because employees respond to and have a deeper connection with the person to whom they directly report.

When I was with SAP in Europe, Middle East and Africa, we asked a sample of the 11,000 employees how they received most of their information. They said: their manager. We asked how they preferred to get corporate information. They said: their manager. We asked how they wanted to receive information in the future. They said: their manager.

The direct manager of every employee is the preferred communications method. Fancy intranets, newsletters, or bulletin boards will never replace this human interaction with the single person who holds the key to determining an employee’s level of job satisfaction, performance and accomplishment, and level of compensation and career advancement.

Managers are wise to acknowledge this and determine how to leverage their influence. Too many managers remove emotion from their interactions with employees, which dulls their ability to be influential. Instead of thinking of business strategy as a fact-driven directive, managers have the power to bring it to life by creating an emotional connection to the future state the strategy will reveal.

Only robots perform tasks without comprehending why they’re necessary, what came before, and what will come next in the process. Employees are not robots and they are unable to operationalize a strategy unless they are armed with a fundamental understanding of their role in its execution.

Good managers know exactly what speaks louder than words. Observed actions are not only modeled by the team, but they also trigger stories that move rapidly through the organization. Whether the story is a retelling of bad or good behavior, the decision-making and actions of  employees will be influenced.

Stories are sort of like implanting a programmable chip in employees’ minds. Annette Simmons noted, “Story is like mental software that [managers] supply so that [employees] can run it later using new input specific to the situation…..Once installed, a good story replays itself and continues to process new experience through a filter, channeling future experiences toward the perceptions and choices you desire.” Stories turn employees into independent thinkers and eliminate the need to micromanage.

Managers who step up to their role in strategy execution will likely find themselves elevated to a position where they are in the room next time big decisions are made. So forget implanting a microchip in employees’ heads or replacing them with robots. Instead, tell a story or do something remarkable that triggers a story and watch an abstract strategy come to life before your eyes.

 

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