In Honor of Middle Excerpt from Thriving in the Middle

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do our physical fitness all in one year then be done with it? The way we currently address management development makes about as much sense.”

—Mike Cook


Distinct from senior/executive levels of management, the operational (senior, middle, or frontline) manager operates much of the time “in the moment,” with responsibilities that have immediate and often conflicting deliverables. In many instances, the issues they face cannot be put off without incurring undesirable consequences. The ability of people in these positions to work successfully under conditions of increasing complexity and in the face of often-continuous ambiguity is a requirement of the modern work environment.

Operational-level managers oversee execution in most organizations. They operate on the often-hazy divide between strategic and operations management. They are the source of what the customer identifies as “delivering the goods” in virtually all companies. their development is, therefore, a strategic concern and critical to the overall needs of the larger organization.

For at least the past two decades, there has been a great deal of attention and allocation of resources aimed at reducing the number of operational-level managers in businesses. This attention and its desired effects have been well intended, yet often misguided. The overarching consequence today is that operational-level and frontline managers have more responsibility and fewer resources with which to achieve results.

Working harder to keep pace with demand has a natural threshold, and quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns as mounting job stress leads to reactionary practices and ill-conceived decision-making. The pressures to reduce expense and increase effectiveness are legitimate; however, the unintended consequence of these practices may, in many ways, offset the bene- fits achieved. As expectations of operational-level managers continue to expand, these individuals need new thinking. New thoughts will lead to new actions, and managers will become more effective, stronger leaders while fostering greater accountability, responsibility, and the inclination to initiate among those employees they manage.

An entirely new intelligence is needed in our organizations to deal with the complexity that now is simply the world of business. This new intelligence will be more community-based; less individual-outcome focused, and be built on the development of powerful working relationships, collaborative skills, and perspectives. is new intelligence has already been distinguished in works such as Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman, Wired to Connect: Dialogues on Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman et al, and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success by Karl Albrecht. e work that has been achieved to under- stand social intelligence is important. However, the frames of references in which the initial work has developed are either individual or honoring of current hierarchical models. Both represent additive knowledge (incremental improvement) being developed within current constraints rather than launching into entirely new operational constructs that offer the opportunity to generate performance at unprecedented levels. e current set of operational-level management skills and mindset is, for the most part, insufficient to the problems of the 21st century’s often ambiguous and always fast- paced business environment. Managers must learn ways to lead more for engagement than compliance. They must delegate, develop, and reward frontline employees, with an eye towards building the capacity of frontline workers to make sound decisions and take effective action from a community perspective in the face of increasingly complex challenges.

I hear you saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…but how?” I am going to suggest that rather than ask me “how” you ask yourself if you are willing to transform your beliefs and approach to management development. If your response is “yes”, then we can proceed because nothing short of a transformation of beliefs will be sufficient to get where you want to go.

The first of the beliefs to be transformed is that of both the importance of and nature of mid-level management.

Mid- level managers are not those who failed to make it to the top, they are those who are best suited to manage in the middle.

It is my firmly held belief that operational-level managers are both a key element of operational success as well as the catalyst for any organization to work smarter. In order to develop these core contributors to operational success, a new appreciation of what it means to “manage in the middle” must be created and supported. Any such approach will orient thinking towards the customer first, hierarchy second. Managers will begin to see their world primarily flowing at them from the customer’s desires rather than senior management’s directives. The development of middle managers will reflect this reorientation, and become much more like the work itself, rather than the heretofore methods of varying degrees of simulation. Such an approach will break the cycles of:

• Managers being sent to development programs rather than choosing to attend

•   Increasingly unaffordable developmental programs requiring extensive travel costs and time away from work

•   One-size- fits-all immersion style (week-long residential) training with limited relevance to specific manager’s challenges and offering little or no framework for applying course content on the job

•   Solo study of online material offering no practical value, and lacking the added benefits of collective sharing of experience and learning the description that follows represents a breakthrough in thinking and execution of the professional development of operational-level managers. Through thousands of hours of action research embedded in real-life management environments, a set of observations has emerged that connect seemingly trivial or unrelated conditions:

•   Most managers hold operational-level positions.

•   Most of these individuals will remain operational-level throughout their careers for legitimate reasons, not for lack of opportunity or talent. Their talents are uniquely suited to this level of management.

•   There are distinctly unique skills involved in being a strong performer at the operational-level of management over time.

•   Managers who are driven to attain a senior-level position will leave an organization rather than accept long-term employment in the middle or front line.

•   The primary value of operational-level managers is the development and retention of talent within an organization.

•   People with similar challenges benefit from a community learning experience where they can share experiences and practices on a regular basis.

•   The mystery of how to work smarter, not just harder, has not been adequately addressed in most organizations. Think for a moment about the type of leadership your organization needs from your operational-level managers these days. Now ask yourself this: “What do I really think the odds are of us consistently getting the performance we are counting on from our operational-level managers without doing things differently?”

If you answered something that approximates “pretty low,” then what if...

•   You could link managers’ problem-solving ability together like computers can be linked for greater processing power?

•   Management development could become process-driven rather than event-de defined?

•   Development took place in small doses over time, rather than large doses in concentrated time?

•   Operational-level managers were developed to become the best operational-level managers they could be with-out concern for upward advancement?

•   Development and the application of learning took place in a near-real-time experiential environment using actual situations faced?

•   Managers derived most of their developmental benefit from conversations with other managers facing similar issues? If these outcomes sound like good value for your organization, you are probably working in an environment like most places, meaning that most places would recognize the opportunity being described.