Middle Managers Play Key Role in Successful Strategic Initiatives

A strategy is only as successful as its execution. The challenge is closing the gap between strategy development and frontline execution, something only possible when middle managers are fully engaged as conduits of change.
— By Dave Desouza

The development of short–and long–term business strategies is a critical responsibility of senior leaders in any organization. Strategies establish goals and objectives and identify the paths for success. The top organizational leaders are engaged in the process and have high expectations that frontline employees will do the hard day-to-day work needed for success. Notice anything? There is a wide gap between the people at the top and the frontline employees, and it is a gap filled with middle managers who are expected to drive the change.

Engaging middle managers in the strategic execution process is crucial to success, yet they are often not fully engaged in the strategic process and may lack the appropriate leadership skills needed to transform teams. The very people responsible for turning strategy on paper into action are often the people least equipped to manage the challenges of strategic initiatives. Putting focus and resources into middle manager readiness for strategic change can have big payoffs.

Carrying Out Intent
Strategic planning can be thought of as the organization's intent for staying competitive. Execution is how that intent is carried out.

One of the first mistakes organizations make is developing strategy at the C-suite and senior management level without including middle managers in the process. So many management discussions today are focused on collaboration, developing a coaching culture, and employee engagement when sometimes the focus should be on organizational readiness for change. Handing down a strategic plan without a full understanding of organizational readiness to execute the plan can be a costly mistake. Yet it happens often and is a major reason strategies fail.

It is the middle managers who can explain to the birds-eye executives what is available in terms of resources, especially human resources. For example, do current frontline employees have the appropriate skills to carry out work plans and responsibilities? So much today relies on the workforce having the right technical skills, and a skills gap can slow or doom successful strategy implementation.

Middle managers are the people who know the capabilities and training needs of staff, including the often overlooked frontline managers. Before any strategy is executed, the organization must be in a state of readiness which could mean hiring new talent, developing existing employees, upgrading technical equipment, and increasing team commitment to business success.

Paving the way for strategic execution success requires managers who have a strategic orientation, embrace empowerment, and have the right leadership skills. Without these characteristics, readiness becomes a buzzword rather than an action plan.

Developing Core Skills
Clear communication from the top is crucial for middle managers who make strategy happen.

Every organization implementing strategic plans needs to ask itself if its managers have the right characteristics – emotional intelligence; listening and feedback skills; growth mindset; ability to build relationships; and an authentic management style as a coach, culture builder, diversity and inclusion promoter, and effective communicator.

Many managers do not have these core skills even though they may have specific skills for day-to-day management of their teams. Often, the core skills needed for strategic success are overlooked in the effort to develop specific work skills, making strategic transformation nearly impossible.

So how can an organization supercharge their managers? The answer is engagement. It sounds simple, but that is deceptive.

The only way to improve engagement of managers who in turn engage their employees is to make them partners in the strategic development and execution process. They need a clear understanding of the goals, training to close skills gaps, opportunities to collaborate with other managers, accountability or performance measures, and robust feedback. They also must know how to motivate and engage their employees, sharing the excitement of change and creating a collaborative team in which each person understands their role in organizational success.

Supercharged managers transform themselves as well as their teams, meaning they need intrinsic skills like empathy and social intelligence.

Investing in Readiness
Investing resources in the people who make strategy plans a reality is important to success, but so many organizations fail to do so.

The thinking goes along the lines of, "We hired them because they had management experience" or "They need to be motivated on their own" or "We are on a budget, and training people who are already managers is too costly." Managers are not likely to be engaged when they believe executives have expectations but are unwilling to put the effort and resources into empowering the people who execute their plans.

EY is a benchmark company that recognized its leaders needed the knowledge, skills and mindset in order for the company to thrive through its change initiatives. The company continually invests in training development and transparency. It is not a one-time "train for this initiative" approach. It is an "invest in our managers" approach to help them develop the right mindset and the skills to strengthen the collaborative culture and communicate goals to ensure the alignment of execution.

The reason so many strategy executions fail often comes down to two factors: Lack of organizational readiness and design alignment.

Consultants with Cappella Associates point out that accountabilities, authorities and deliverables related to strategy execution should cascade from senior levels throughout the organization. People at the top, including functional directors, may have broad accountability, but the direct report managers need accountability for their respective areas. Ensuring the alignment of a senior manager's goals and accountability with the middle managers makes expectations and contributions clear in terms of strategy success.

Develop Leaders and Not Managers
One of the most difficult decisions executives must make is determining if the people currently in positions are right for executing change.

Executive search firm DDJ Myers developed a white paper titled "The Missing Link in Strategic Execution: Developing Mid-Level Leaders." The premise is that organizations need to develop leaders and not managers.

Each manager responsible for execution needs the right mindset and skills. They must be committed to making a stronger business; becoming exceptional leaders; understanding what leadership really means; maintaining and modeling a strategic orientation; embracing empowerment and accountability; seeking and accepting and sharing robust feedback; continually developing the right skills for the right environment; and striving to transform their teams and organizations.

Developing these characteristics may take time, meaning strategic execution begins long before a strategic plan is put in place.