Over the past 20 years, no group has endured greater pain and humiliation within organizations than mid-level managers (MLMs — managers from two levels below the CEO down to the line managers). Before the IT revolution, MLMs wielded genuine power within companies, acting as gatekeepers of crucial data, financials, and intelligence. Then, automation and the Web put senior executives in touch with their own front lines — and handed many MLMs their pink slips. MLMs who remained were labeled "dinosaurs" or "overhead."
I recently conducted a study of 56 randomly selected companies involved in major change and innovation efforts in the high-tech, retail, pharmaceutical, banking, automotive, insurance, energy, non-profit, and health care industries. Nearly 68% of these large-scale change and innovative efforts failed.
I controlled for industry growth, makeup, and innovation type and used data on over 1,000 MLMs and senior executives involved in the major efforts. Then, I looked at a period of three to five years to see the direct effect of these major transformations. I examined each company's internal documents, interviewed participants in all ranks, and analyzed market data; I also used outcome measures directly tied to the innovation/change. The result was startling: Aside from the role of the senior executives, the most important determinant of success was the role of MLMs. In the successful initiatives, MLMs served as levers of change, influencing those above and below them in the corporate hierarchy.
In the successful initiatives, MLMs were empowered in three ways. First, they were able to see how the initiatives aligned with their own personal and professional aspirations. Second, through cross-boundary and cross-functional teams, MLMs were typically the major authors of the initiatives. Finally, MLMs ensured the direct participation and authorship of individual contributors. In contrast, in the failing innovation/change initiatives, more than 60% of the MLMs' time was spent in efforts devoted to sheer corporate survival. Focused on pleasing people rather than doing their jobs, they procrastinated on decisions for fear of failure, blamed others for mistakes and avoided taking risks. These MLMs were alienated and felt senior executives had used them as tactical tools.
Large-scale innovation and change include hundreds or thousands of moving parts that require palpable, intelligent, and emotional steps that no IT system can execute. Because of their 360-degree view of organizations, MLMs are uniquely positioned to implement such large-scale initiatives. Yet, as our research found, MLMs have become cautious and unsure of their authority due to their experiences during the IT revolution and the recession. I think of it as a sort of occupational post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In order for companies and MLMs themselves to realize their value, they need to reinvent the MLMs' role; I propose a triple-A leadership model. Organizations from IBM, Apple, and Li & Fung to Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, have achieved great results with triple-A leadership:
In the first stage, the MLMs' values are aligned with the goals of the change initiative. The alignment can take place in training sessions and/or via conversations between MLMs and executives, and can be led by the MLMs themselves or by executives. When MLMs' core values are in line with their work, they're better able to realize their full potential, and the organization benefits.
Next, organizations create cross-functional teams of MLMs, who author change and innovation plans that turn executives' visions into concrete steps. MLMs can also take the initiative here, forming their own teams with other MLMs. In turn, the MLMs need to involve the individual contributors to co-author the plans with them. Authorship creates ownership and commitment, and ultimately leads to creative and impactful solutions.
MLMs must be responsible for the success of the initiatives they author. They need to remove daily obstacles through uncompromising persistence. Steve Jobs told a group of Apple MLMs: "When a janitor is faced with a locked door, it's okay for them to come up with an excuse or a reason; however, you are not allowed to come up with any excuses or reasons."
MLMs should not wait for senior executives to initiate the triple-A; rather, they should become the change champions within their companies. At a minimum, MLMs should create triple-A models within the organizations that report to them.
The IT revolution devastated the ranks of MLMs. But people are not machines; they don't go obsolete. What has gone obsolete are not MLMs, but what we think MLMs can be.