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  • Writer's pictureBrad Federman

The Meat of the Sandwich: How the Middle Manager Can Close the Gap between the C-Suite and the Front

By Brad Federman

Published in HR Professionals Magazine

There are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or influence. Those who lead inspire us.

“Whether individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves.” – Simon Sinek

If you are a manager who wants to inspire people, at every level of the organization, to bring the vision of a more engaged organization to reality, this article is for you. This is not an attempt at fixing everything that is broken in your organization. Instead, we are here to fan the flame inside the persons who know there is a deeper purpose for their career. To inspire them to want to raise trust levels, strengthen culture and vastly increase the success of their organization.

As consultants with nearly 50 years of corporate experience between us, we have spent our careers making a case for employee experience as the roadmap for building a culture of trust, loyalty, and achievement. Studies show that only 11 to 29 percent of employees are fully engaged in their work. We know that having an engaged workforce can lead up to:

71% less turnover 62% fewer accidents 43% less sick days 12% higher profit margins;And more…much more.

In the book “Employee Engagement: A Roadmap for Creating Profits, Optimizing Performance, and Increasing Loyalty,” information includes key factors that influence the deteriorating relationship between employer/employee: pace, anxiety, schedules, stability, and technology. While experts have worked tirelessly to examine the complexities, the employment environment and the flaws in organizational strategies that do not focus on engagement, we dare to zoom in on an area where managers can take action in reshaping the culture…leading through the middle.

How can managers close the gap between the front-line and the C-Suite? But first, let’s discuss why this is so important.

Currently, studies suggest that trust in management is only between 14-58 percent. We are acting a low point. Employees are struggling with the rapid pace of change, rising expectations of productivity and a squeeze on resources. In many companies employees no longer know or understand the strategy. In some cases, employees believe the strategy is in constant change. In those same companies, senior leadership feels the strategy is clear and everyone should understand it. Some very important things are getting lost in translation. If handled well, middle managers can be the translators and the cultivators of trust.

In addition to competing for business priorities, influencing peers, navigating partnerships and finessing office politics on the daily agenda, changes at the executive level create considerable anxiety. CEO turnover is the highest it has been in eight years. The instability in CEO retention is similar to when we were coming out of the Great Recession. With a median CEO tenure of 5.5 years, companies have little to no time to execute one strategy before an alternative one is being presented. To employees, this feels like whiplash. The lack of consistency certainly influences studies that indicate fewer than 28 percent of employees truly believe in the strategic direction or trust the leadership of their organizations. Inconsistency in leadership and mistrust from the front-line mounts the pressure, for managers, from above and below. Similar to the pressure from the Earth creating a diamond that is valuable and unique, so is the opportunity for managers to have a considerable impact on the cultures of their organizations.

So what is the ultimate cultural disruptor that every manager can use as an instrument of change? Trust!

Without trust, individuals working together are a group and not a team. Trust is the critical element that takes capable and talented people and transforms them into a cohesive group. Like leadership, “trust” is not earned through title or organizational hierarchy. The very thing creating a challenge for senior executives in leading organizational change represents an opportunity for managers to have a considerable impact in organizational culture. To build trust is to lead by example, to communicate openly, to know each other’s values, view mistakes constructively, discourage cliques, and to discover where problems originate by listening and walking around.

A Real Life Case in Action

In her ten years as a middle manager with a global company, one of our clients experienced three changes at the senior level of her organization over a four-year period. What she witnessed with every transition was constant chatter and gossip for months leading up to each change and periods of considerable apprehension following the new appointments. Employees were in constant fear about their job security and other fellow managers expressed concerns about how new leadership would impact their current place in the organization or advancement opportunities. Occasionally, employees would receive emails from human resources attempting to assure them of a quick transition led to managers instructing their teams not to make any “big decisions” and to simply “keep their heads down until the dust settled.” With at least 25 percent of her department disengaged and 50 percent of the staff performing at a 60 percent or less utilization of their capabilities and performance, she knew millions in payroll was wasted.

She was concerned the decline would soon show up in client experience, revenue and profitability, so she spoke to her managing director about assembling a task force to formulate a more productive communication and engagement strategy during periods of change. She contacted other managers for candid insight having navigated the organization and developed good relationships across other departments. What she discovered was departments with more localized communication had far less chatter than groups that depended solely on centralized corporate communications. During the task meeting, she and her management colleagues had an open discussion about the challenges their teams faced. They outlined their purpose and made a direct connection between their purpose and the purpose of their organization. This process became an elevated and trust-building position. They would now hold face-to-face (not email) discussions about strategy and vision during periods of change. After additional collaboration across other teams, each manager contributed to a plan that benchmarked the best of engagement, including trust-building responses to gossip and job security. Even managers who had instructed teams “to keep their heads down” acknowledged their mistakes and were open to managing these critical communications differently. Two-way collaborative conversations became the norm.

Organizations make changes more challenging than they need to be when they wait too late to act. When companies push employees to respond in crisis mode, it exhausts resources and erodes trust.

However, every manager witnessing the impact of the process has an opportunity to jump into action that can empower others to rise above crisis to purpose. While senior leaders focus on short terms results that compromise hope for the future, managers can apply fundamental principles for people to succeed long term.

Successful organizational change comes from the more profound sense of purpose that we often look for in our transformation. And while many view personal transformation with optimism, cultural change is often viewed by many with dread. Typically that is due to a lack of facts, ambiguity and the desire for organizations to preach a message rather than have a conversation. With collaborative approaches to trust-building, you can take the sense of purpose and use it as fuel to close the gap between the front-line and the C-suite.

Strong leaders use this same approach and technique even during times of stability. These leaders realize that they can use two-way, transparent conversations to strengthen their team, learn about the issues and challenges their people face, stay focused on the most critical initiatives, reduce distractions, promote trust, reduce fear and foster powerful connections amongst their team including the connections they have with each on their team. However, this does not happen by accident. It requires a very thoughtful and intentional approach.

Organizations would do well to support this effort and boost the skillset and knowledge of their middle managers to make this a consistent reality across the board. We must remember middle managers translate everything from strategy to culture to change. They are the translators for the C-Suite. They are the meat of the sandwich and it is through the middle manager that the gap between the C-Suite and the front-line can be closed.

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