What do you do if you’re a middle manager who sees the big picture but you work for a boss who only focuses on the here and now?
That was the heart of question I received at recent workshop I conducted on leading from the middle for a national conference of training and development professionals. It was clear that the questioner had had first-hand experience with a boss who wanted his direct reports to know their place and not be thinking or acting big. And therein lies the challenge for eager, upwardly mobile self-starting managers: you want to put your ideas into play and see their results, but your boss only wants you to do what you’re told.
Once upon a time, organizations functioned just fine when orders flowed down from on high. But as the global business environment has evolved, the need for decentralized rapid decision-making has become critical. We need creative men and women to step up and lead from the middle. So what do you do if your boss wants you to keep your place?
First and foremost, do your job: make certain that you do everything you are asked to do. (It is your job, after all.) Once you have established yourself as a credible performer, there are three things you can to do give your big idea a better chance of success:
There is something about a big snowstorm that brings out the best, or more often the worst, in big city mayors. If, as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local,” then you would think that the first hint of snow in the forecast would prompt mayors to relocate their offices temporarily to where the snowplows are dispatched.
But across the Hudson, Newark Mayor Cory Booker has received acclaim for his response to the nor’easter snowfall, despite taking flak on a host of other matters. Not content with supervising removal, he plunged in with a shovel, helping to extricate cars, clear walkways, and in one instance deliver diapers to a housebound mother. He also tweeted his first-hand observations of the snow to his more than one million Twitter followers.
We like to see our elected officials in action. The contrast between Bloomberg’s reception and Booker’s can serve as a lesson for anyone in a position of authority. Here are some tips for the next big storm that hits your office:
Leaders run risks when they act on the negative. Negativity may win an election but it does not lead to good governance. A leader must stand for something, not simply against something else. Having an enemy can help when gaining attention for a cause, but using that enemy and hatred of it, as a foundation for leadership is a risky proposition. Leaders need to focus more on what they stand for.
Letting people know what you can do is far better than letting people know whom you dislike.
When change initiatives fail, the culprit is often a lack of good communication from management. But that’s not always the whole story. Communication isn’t just about what management says; it’s also about how employees listen.
This point was made to me by an executive whose organization had difficulty in getting employees to buy into changes it had proposed. He felt his employees were choosing to tune out as a form of resistance. Such resistance can often sabotage the best efforts of management to drive change throughout the organization. It even happens when managers are diligent communicators and active in the communication process. Resistance will occur for any number of reasons: perceived loss of autonomy, fear of the unknown, or a dislike for upsetting the status quo.
And then when the long-discussed change occurs — be it an organizational transformation or a move to a new facility — the disgruntled rank and file mutters about not being consulted and blames management for being heavy handed.
What can you do to avoid, or at least mitigate, this kind of ugly situation? It will take efforts before, during, and after your communication push:
I have long admired teachers. The ability to share knowledge and turn it into learning is a gift that I find rich and rewarding. Let me add another accolade to good teachers — great management skills. I learned this first-hand because I failed at teaching.
For years I have taught in executive and corporate education programs. My work has been judged on the merit of insight and engagement; participants are my evaluators. In fall 2009, however, I had the opportunity to teach in an undergraduate program for a local university. I would be responsible for exams, papers, projects and of course grades. I would also be responsible for taking attendance.
Since my students were adults (“non-traditional” in the collegiate jargon), I let them come and go as they pleased. I didn’t bother too much with sign-up sheets for attendance nor did I squawk when students left class early. As a workshop instructor, I am accustomed to participants being called away from class to handle things back at the office. It was annoying when students left without warning, but my attitude was, “It’s their nickel and they must have somewhere else important to be.”
Wrong! This was brought home to me by a student who told me that she found it very rude that students got up and left and that such things were not tolerated by the university, only by certain instructors like me. Since I like to draw leadership lessons from what I observe, let me share a few things about teaching that apply as well to managers.
re you overlooking the talents and skills of someone on your team?
Some star performers may lack the confidence to challenge conventional thinking about themselves and therefore they stay in their given roles.
Those who manage the talent pipeline would be wise to heed the words of composer Ludwig von Beethoven, who wrote, “The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, ‘Thus far and no farther.’”
Sometimes when you’re wondering what to do next in life, good advice can come when you least expect it — like when you’re getting your hair cut.
Joan*, the hairstylist giving me a trim, mused aloud about what she was planning to do with her career. Cutting hair was just one part of her livelihood; she was also a professional caregiver as well as the owner of a rig that her husband operated. But her husband was about to retire from the road, and now they were wondering, “What next?”
Over the course of our brief conversation, in no more than the time it took Joan to cut my hair, I picked up on three attributes of her success that are helpful for any entrepreneur:
Practical. Listening to her brainstorm reminded me that successful entrepreneurs know how to keep their feet on the ground. First, they get inspired through personal observation, developing ideas from needs they see in the world around them. Second, they develop a concrete plan. They may work the plan, changing it as they go, but always with an eye towards getting a good return.
Purposeful. People with a practical outlook seek opportunities that add value, as opposed to opportunities that just seem “cool.” (It’s easy to forget this distinction, especially in well-established organizations.) Their focus is offering products and services that customers need and will pay for. For instance, Joan’s second job as a caregiver: that’s a service for which there is always a need.
Impatient. Sure, patience is a virtue in some cases. But for an entrepreneur, so is impatience. Joan is eager to make things happen so that she can continue to earn a good living. When it comes time for her husband to leave the trucking business, she will be ready with another venture. Her gumption and ambition make her impatient for success, and that drive increases her chances of getting there.