Improving Strategic Implementation From the Middle

Middle managers are the engine of the business. CLOs must have strategies and programs in place to strengthen this mission-critical group.

Improving the results and effectiveness of the middle-management team can result in quick and positive results. It is more important than ever for companies to execute well and flexibly change to meet emerging needs and opportunities. The competition has never been so fierce and global.

Chief learning officers interested in optimizing strategic implementation will want to have strategies and programs in place to strengthen middle-management capacity. Middle managers are the company’s engine. They set the pace of execution and are the link between strategic plans and results.

Middle managers are professionals two to seven levels below the president. They have the titles of vice president, director or department manager. Middle managers share a responsibility to translate corporate strategy into actions and results.

Great middle managers have a significant impact on the results of the company. They do this by focusing like a laser beam on company priorities and by spending their time in ways that make the most difference. They say “no” to tasks and meeting requests that are not a good use of time and resources. They know what’s expected of them and why their job exists. The best middle managers find their work satisfying and take the initiative to make things better.

Ineffective middle managers often do more damage than good. They let unimportant tasks, firefighting and barriers bog them down. Their time is ruled by a to-do list filled with routine tasks. These middle managers may feel unengaged and overwhelmed.

Evaluating Middle Management Capacity
Many companies do not think about or know how to assess middle management capacity. Determining middle management capacity is often the best first step. To assess middle management capacity, look at the following:

  • Results and Alignment: Are middle managers clear about goals and priorities? Do senior leaders regularly speak with middle managers about strategy, potential opportunities and operational considerations? How aligned are results to the strategic plan and budget? How do departmental goals and work plans support the corporate strategies? In some organizations, the communication processes and alignment are poor. This is a barrier to middle management capacity.
  • Time Utilization: How do middle managers spend their time? Often, a significant portion of the day is taken up by tasks that do not make much of a difference. Improving time utilization can have an immediate and positive impact on middle-manager effectiveness.
  • Seven Diseases of Middle Management: There are common ailments that plague many middle managers. They are:

    1. Managerial Amnesia: Afflicted managers are unclear about what they should be doing and how they should act.
    2. Enlarged Ego Syndrome: Afflicted managers’ egos get in the way, and produce ideas and thoughts that do not serve their goals.
    3. Blurry Vision: Afflicted managers lead their teams in the wrong direction. Symptoms include misunderstood expectations, current performance levels and a lack of suitable goals.
    4. Productivity Blockages: Afflicted managers experience barriers that prevent progress and lead to discomfort within the team. In addition, these managers may try to solve the problem by working more hours—an approach that rarely works.
    5. Performance Management Phobia: Afflicted managers have fears and anxieties about managing employees, which get in the way of the their responsibility to create an environment of high performance.
    6. Process Paralysis: Afflicted managers are beleaguered by processes that no longer support the goals of the company or the employees.
    7. Hard of Hearing: Afflicted managers inadvertently reduce and filter the number of ideas that they consider, and this gets in the way of their ability to improve results.

The middle-management team’s talent and potential are often far higher than results might suggest. Opportunities for improving middle management capacity can be discovered by looking at results, management communication processes, time utilization and the common barriers middle managers face.

Improving Middle-Management Capacity
Assessing middle-management capacity provides the basis for a development plan that includes training initiatives, organizational development projects and other development processes. Here are a several ways to improve middle management capacity:

  • Redefine and clarify middle management roles: Do your middle managers understand what is expected of them and that they are important enablers of strategic implementation? Roles need to be clear and powerful to enable and facilitate peak performance.
  • Dehassle the work: Daily hassles reduce throughput and make it difficult for managers to think proactively and creatively.
  • Improve communication processes: Assess and strengthen the communication processes between senior management, middle management and departmental teams. Middle managers need to understand the strategies and translate them into work plans and projects. These processes should encourage and enable upward, lateral and downward communication.
  • Develop middle managers’ skills through training: Middle managers are the ultimate facilitators of work and processes. They need to be able to remove barriers and keep work flowing. They also need to make wise choices about how to spend their day. Middle managers need to establish a work environment where employees can do their best work (with hearts and minds fully engaged). Many middle managers can benefit from planning, process improvement and team facilitation training.

Time spent assessing and improving middle management capacity offers quick and visible results, as well as a measurable ROI. When middle managers perform well, company results and employee satisfaction soar.

Lisa Haneberg is a business writer and consultant. She is the author of “H.I.M.M. (High Impact Middle Management): Solutions for Today’s Busy Managers.” She can be reached at

April 2005 Table of Contents