How could your middle managers actually do something all day?

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Front line leadership is often defined as “where the company meets the customer.” Oftentimes, your front line leadership is also your middle management — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. (More on that in a second.) If a company reaches $5 billion in valuation, it typically has between 9–14 levels of management between the CEO and the most rank-and-file worker. That’s a lot of levels and, in turn, a lot of front line leadership.

You need your front line leadership to be effective, because ideally that’s the level where this stuff happens:

  • The trains keep moving
  • There’s an alignment between “strategy” and “day-to-day tasks”
  • Projects are polished before being kicked up to the brass

If you’ve ever had a standard office job for 12 seconds, you know that middle management is one of the least productive slices of a given organization. It’s mostly chest-pounding, relevance-seeking, KPI-yelping, hiding-behind-technology ass clowns topped off with a “sense of urgency” cherry. The amount of real, priority-driven work assigned to you by most middle managers (“front line leadership”) plus $2.25 could get you on the subway in most cities. Phrased another way? None. It’s mostly “Hey, you’re here and a warm body. Can you call my dry cleaners and make sure I can pick up today?” (Saw that at one job.) Or: “Hey, my friend is turning 45 this weekend. Can you use company time to design a fake magazine cover of her and our friend group? Thx.” (Ditto.)

Front line leadership is often a joke. But maybe we can make it better.

Front line leadership: What should the roles be?

Above, we saw a little bit of what the front line leadership roles usually are. But what should they be?

Chris Zook is a strategy leader over at Bain — I actually got the 9–14 levels of management stat from his work — and as he promotes his new book, here’s an article by him in Harvard Business Review. The subject is front line leadership, and he proposes four roles they should have // how they can benefit a company:

  • Reach down into the organization
  • Consistently translate the strategy into front-line behaviors
  • Identify the key players in your organization and treat them as company heroes
  • Allow those heroes to have power over their own decisions

So, those are the four ways that front line leadership could be really effective for an org. Does that really happen, though? Onto the next section.

Front line leadership: What actually happens

Let’s take the four above and check ’em out.

Reach down: Sometimes this happens in an effective, performance-based way. Yes, that’s true! But oftentimes it’s subjective, a middle manager picks a favorite, and they attempt to “mint” that person. The irony, of course, is that the middle manager — front line leadership — is not “minted” in their own right, and there’s a good chance the CEO barely knows his name. There’s a general belief among front line leadership that they are the real target-hitters and productivity-drivers of an organization and that they need to band together around the best people. Most of this is a farce. Most middle managers are digital paper pushers who could easily be forced out by a new version of Oracle CRM. But that scares us to discuss, so we don’t.

Consistently translate: Look at the stats here. Most organizations are terrible at aligning “strategy” (vision) with “execution” (day-to-day tasks). It’s that simple.

Identify the key players: This gets fraught because, from an evolution standpoint, our brain is designed to predict threats. Your boss has a brain and needs to predict threats too. If you have good ideas? Ahem, that’s a threat. So of course they’re not gonna “identify the key players” if they think those “key players” are coming for their perch.

Allow those heroes: First off, “heroes” as a business concept is something that some MBA professor probably came up with, wrote three books about, and then bought a bigger house. Heroes aren’t normative at work. As for “empowering them to make their own decisions,” well, that’s fraught too. We’re obsessed at work with who “owns” what — P&L! Hiring! Sales funnel! — and it’s mostly crap. Who cares if X or Y “owns” something if the company is successful? Well, front line leadership does — because they won’t see as many fruits of that success, so the ownership of a given thing is what becomes paramount.

Front line leadership: How do we make it better?

Here are a couple of humble suggestions.

1. Be the bridge between “strategy” and “execution.” IMHO, this is crucial. Strategy is often set in a vacuum — some off-site that the top brass attend — but then, six Wednesdays after that off-site ends, I gotta sit down at my desk and do stuff. What should I do? What’s a priority? Could this other thing wait for a bit? Managers tend to assign everything “urgent” status, which burns out their people, causes churn/turnover, and is just generally crappy front line leadership. Be a legit bridge. “These are our goals for this quarter,” you say, “so here’s what you need to focus on first.”

2. Shift the focus to talent and bench-building: Would never happen, but … make front line leadership do more work around hiring and finding actually good people. Headcount is a rushed process at most places, leading to crappy hiring processes. A lot of it comes from this assumption — by front line leadership — that people don’t matter. Wrong. People need to matter, if for no other reason than they make you look better. We need to empower these people to think about “talent strategy” and building good teams, not chasing targets all day.

3. Trim the fat: Bureaucracy is crushing orgs right now, and where are most of those bureaucratic layers happening? Front line leadership. Honestly, if you’re an exec, here’s what you need to do. Make middle managers / front line leadership defend their jobs. What’s your value here? Are you a subject matter expert, or have you put forward any good ideas in the last three years? If not, yank ’em. If their argument is “making the trains run,” well, guess what? Google Drive helps the trains run too.

What else would you add about front line leadership?

My name’s Ted Bauer. I’d love to help you make some money and drive some leads, but not in some completely bullshit way.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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