Sometimes the leadership that is required in an organisation does not come from the top. For an organisation as a whole, this is because the board itself is divided or because the board and the executive do not have the same goal and values or because much of the executive is incompetent. For individual initiatives in an organisation this is because the initiative is not sufficiently important to the board or then executive to be driven from the top.
In these circumstances the organisation or the initiative is led from the middle. Senior and junior middle managers provide the drive to keep the organisation working and prospering, albeit not as well as it could have done with leadership from the top.
How do we, as middle managers lead and organisation or initiative that is not being led from the top? There are four principles to leading from the middle.
Know and exercise your level of authority
Senior executives give us authority levels to aid governance. We will be given a maximum level of capital to spend without referral and control over an operational budget. Know what those levels are and where you can mount a rationale argument that does not expose the organisation to unacceptable risk, work to get them extended.
We are also usually given authorities over other resources such as staff numbers, lines of credit we can authorise, job levels we can recruit and expenditure we can write off without referral.
If you do not have authority levels clearly defined for these important elements of managing a business or department, then ask for them to be clearly stated as a matter of good governance.
To successfully lead from the middle you must be willing, when necessary to exercise your authority even when your boss or other senior managers do not agree with you. They may, o course decide to revoke your authority. My experience is that this only happens if you make obvious errors and expose the organisation to undue risk. In that case, revoking your authority is probably good management.
In the day-to-day work life inform your superiors whenever you are making major decisions within your authority limits and consult when you wish to go outside your authority limits. That does not mean to say that you do not consult to get the best information to make the best decision. However, the decision is yours and yours alone to make. That is why you have the authority.
Build alliances around good ideas
Good ideas transcend office politics, mostly. A good idea, successfully implemented, will, as the saying goes, have many bedfellows.
So what makes a good idea? A good idea makes someone’s life easier. It saves time or money or it makes more money that the time and money it takes. To a lesser extent, it may reduce risk. I say to a lesser extent because most people in most organisations only understand the concept of risk after the risk event has happened and not before. Even then, the risk event has to be recent for the size of the consequence for the understanding to stay in corporate memory.
How do we create good ideas? It is not as hard as it may seem. Get ten of your experienced people in a room and carry out a negative brainstorming session where the task is to come up with all the reasons why you cannot achieve an end result of a good idea. People generally like to be negative; to tell you why you cannot do something. If they are any good, they will give you a comprehensive list of problems to be solved.
Complete a five whys analysis to get to root cause and then write the problem down as a problem definition statement which has the form: ” Impact (of the problem) ” Who (is impacted) ” Behaviour (that needs to change) ” Who (needs to change their behaviour)
Complete a Force field analysis, concentrating more, but not exclusively, on removing the blockers to your problem rather than applying more force and you will be along way to creating effective solutions which will deliver a good idea.
Cultivate a network and find a mentor
Take time out to get to know your staff, your colleagues and your bosses. Get to know people in your industry. Build a network of people whom you can call on for ideas, inspiration and mentoring. The latter is very important. If you are going to lead from the middle you need someone who you can turn to and be very blunt with about your actions, thoughts and feelings without the fear of judgement or lack of confidentiality.
A mentor can be your release valve. To lead from the middle successfully you need to look and act like a leader “above your position”. This can be mentally and physically wearing and yet you must keep a public face of confidence to maintain an environment that is motivating to others. You need someone that you can lower your veil of confidence in front of.
A mentor will be someone you trust first and foremost. Secondly, they will have great listening skills and good questioning skills. Thirdly, and lastly, they will have experience in your area of operation. If you get the first two and miss on the third, you will still have a good mentor. If you have a mentor which fulfils the third requirement and misses the first or second, then you are likely to be disappointed.
Create your own power
There are many more sources of power than that of position. Develop these sources of power.
Use your network and experience to become expert at something. Being expert in an organisation is relative to the organisation, not to the world. Find something that interests you that the organisation does not know well. In a poorly led organisation this is not difficult. Poorly led organisations tend to be managed based on opinions not facts.
It could be as simple as knowing the market better than anyone else or knowing cost breakdowns or pricing or the IT infrastructure or government regulations. The list is endless. Just be sure make the expertise you gather is relevant to the organisation.
Use your network again to become the source of information. That does not mean to say that you need to know all the information. It means that you become the human point and click device for finding information.
Do favours for people. Favours freely given build up an almost irrepressible obligation in the receiver to reciprocate at some stage in your relationship. Doing low cost to you favours for others reaps much more in return. Be obliging about requests and go out your way to make life easier for people when it does not unduly expose your part of the organisation to risk.
If you have a good idea don’t be afraid to tell people about it. If you can build a compelling way of expressing the organisation’s vision than do it. If you can build an articulate roadmap on how the organisation can get to its vision then do it. Don’t be afraid to communicate to your team and beyond, your ideas for the organisation.
If you words and thoughts are compelling, you will build referential power beyond that of your position.
Building alternative sources of power to the legitimate power of your position enables you to operate beyond your legitimate power and push the boundaries of your formal authority.
The need to lead from the middle is more commonplace, from my personal observations, than I thought possible ten years ago. It is less Ithink, that senior management charcteristics have deteriorated and more about me having my eyes opened by knowing many more organisations.
If you have poor senior management, leading fom the middle will help you, your vcolleagues and your subordinates. If you have an initiative that does not get senior management attention because of compelling priorities, leading from the middle will help everyone including your senior managers.