Turning Subordinates into Partners

August 18, 2019 • ILE LAB • Boaz Tamir

How can mid-level managers – the most dedicated conformists – be transformed into innovative intra-organizational entrepreneurs who are partners in leading the change that will disrupt and redesign their position?

“What Can Be Done About the Glass Floor?”

With single sentence, a visionary manager, who was having difficult leading the organization towards the goals he had set, made his sense of frustration crystal clear. I understood what he was talking about all too well.  In both of my positions as a senior Deputy-Director – the CFO of “Paz” (Gas and oil Israeli conglomerate) and Director of Marking and Business Development in the food and coffee producer  “Elite” – I had been called upon by the CEO’s to participate as a partner in designing a purpose and vision and to lead change activities within the on-line units, and I had been witness as processes that had begun with much fanfare quickly imploded when my deputy-director colleagues banded together to prevent any change.  The two CEO’s had tried to lead a change, but they were not persistent enough, they retreated, and thus reinforced the glass floor.

This is the story:  A successful CEO in a large financial company is very aware that the informational and digital revolution, with Fintech (financial technology) at its center, is changing the nature of the business environment.  An example: global giants like Amazon, Apple and Facebook are penetrating into the banking and financial market, along with local banks and credit cards providers and insurance companies.  An analysis of the situation led him to design a strategic goal for a change process: to build a Lean-agile enterprise and to adapt organizational efforts to the purpose of creating value for the customer.  The change was to initially include three stages:

  1. Dismantling of the silos (vertical professional units) and creation of a network of multi-disciplinary work teams.
  2. Changing the decision-making processes and encouraging on-line work teams to make independent decisions.
  3. Changing the style of management from that of a program-based, conservative management to dynamic MVP (Minimum Viable Product) planning.

However, analysis of the situation, formulate an appropriate strategy are only the beginning of the process. From the very beginning, the manager realized that he would have to dismantle (or bypass) the glass floor that was preventing any deep change from taking place: that glass floor that is composed of the tendency to prefer blind obedience to directives from above over encouragement of initiative on the ground and over discussions that cut across hierarchies and are based on critical thinking that disrupts the current arrangement.

Leading People to Think Independently

Mid-level managers are most often identified with the glass floor that the CEO described.  These managers depend on hierarchy and obedience that extend in two directions: upwards, towards management and the board of directors, to whom they are obedient; and downwards, towards those who are subordinate to their power and authority and are supposed to obey instructions given by management.  This is the situation we find in most organizations today.

Like most managers, our CEO grew up professionally in a hierarchical world, and this was all he knew.  He came up with the program to change the organization after he became aware of the organizational ineptness and complete dependence on instructions from above, which were preventing the organization from responding with the necessary agility and rapidity. The signs that the organization was approaching a business dead-in were looming large. With no other choice available, he realized that he must leave his comfort zone and stability and, in their stead, empower personnel by granting them autonomy to make decisions in real time.

However, from the moment that he tried to engage the directors and the mid-level managers in change, he realized that the hierarchical Frankenstein had reared its head.  The mid-level managers waited for the new criteria for success and for instructions that were to be sent down from the steering wheel to the wheels. They opposed any change in the rules of the game and the organizational structure, which had given them their sense of professional security, and they were not willing to be pushed out of the centers of decision-making. Our CEO must use force, but he is beginning to internalize that he cannot continue to use the same modes of activity in order to free himself from those same modes.  In other words, you cannot command people to begin to think independently.  On the other hand, he is dependent on the mid-level managers in order to connect with the field, to solve problems and to make decisions in real time.

The Root of the Problem or Merely a Symptom?

How, then, can the subordinates be transformed into partners and the mid-level managers into partners in leading the change that would disrupt their own positions? How can the manager convince them to give up the conservative, yet stable, organizational culture and encourage critical thinking? How can he connect to the field while avoiding micro-management?

In his book, In Search of Excellence, author Tom Peters scathingly criticizes the stagnation of mid-level managers and suggests that senior managers should managing by going around – bypass the mid-level and go directly to the heads of the teams of the ground. Jim Womack doesn’t agree with Peters with regard to the sources of the problem. Womack does not think the mid-level managers should be blamed, and he regards the phenomenon of the “frozen middle” as a symptom of a managerial problem and a failure of leadership. According to Womack, mid-level managers are often the symptom and those who are not yet determined enough to lead the change merely use them as an excuse to allow the existing situation to persist.

There are No Shortcuts

Attempts to by-pass the mid-level managers and reach the line-managers directly will generate hidden and overt resistance.  Our CEO understood that there are no shortcuts and that true change requires the participation both managers and employees in order to enlist a corps of change-leaders. What is needed combination of design attractive purpose, determination to fulfill them, and even cunning in order to know how to keep everyone happy?  The real test of leadership, the CEO is learning, is not to be found in the design of a brilliant strategic plan, but rather in the actual, practical implementation of the change.

Traditional managerial culture is still the breeding ground for most managers.  When they come to realize that this culture is no longer suitable for the standard of agility and quality that is needed in a competitive, open world, they must reinvent their organization and themselves, which forces them to go against the grain of everything that they have known.  How difficult this change is cannot be overstated, but those who will continue to endlessly plan, hesitate, or deny the need for change will find, sooner or later, that they have been tossed out of the game.

 Boaz Tamir, ILE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.