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  • Inspirational Middle Managers Help, but Don't Forget Strategy
  • In today’s challenging times, companies face a number of major obstacles. Change is rampant. Keeping up with the latest technology is increasingly important. The right talent can be difficult to attract and retain. And, the threat of disruption looms for many. As a result, companies may seek ways to overcome the challenges and improve their performance.

    A helpful suggestion appeared in the March 23-24, 2019 Wall Street Journal article, “One Fix for All That’s Wrong: Better Managers” by Sam Walker. Its subtitle is “Anemic growth, millennial malaise, you name it—blame a lack of inspiring bosses”. The article discusses the forthcoming book “It’s the Manager” which tells of a recent Gallup study of successful management of teams. According to the Gallup study, “managers didn’t just influence the results their teams achieved, they explained a full 70% of the variance.” As the article points out, “Only a third of workers are highly engaged at work. In successful firms, it’s close to 70%.” Thus, based on the book, the article recommends that companies hire more inspirational middle managers, who can be better coaches and help drive employee engagement.

    As I see it, hiring more inspirational middle managers can be beneficial. Keeping workers engaged and developing a corporate culture that is more strongly attuned to the purpose and performance of the company is highly worthwhile. So, the recommendation to hire inspirational middle managers can have value.

    But, how much it helps in any particular company can depend on other factors. For example, having the right strategy for employees to be engaged about can make a big difference for company success. Granted, it’s been said that culture eats strategy for lunch. So, as the Gallup study finds, having a culture of highly engaged employees who are inspired to truly care about the company and its purpose can be of tremendous benefit. And, really strong inspirational managers can help shape this kind of engagement. As the Wall Street Journal article points out, “But, for most workers, the real company they work for is the team they’re on. The only way to make a culture stick is to install middle managers who transfer it to their teams.”

    As an expert on strategic choices for successful business growth, however, my view is that to really reap the tremendous benefits of inspirational middle managers, it helps if the employee engagement is directed toward an appropriate strategy. Putting intense enthusiasm and engagement behind an unworkable, poorly fitting strategy can be a waste of a valuable talent resource. It would be far better to put the enthusiasm and engagement behind a strategy that fits the company well and has good potential to drive results, since enthusiasm for an ill-fitting strategy won’t do much good.

    For example, a while back Penney’s tried to do a major transformation. An Apple retail executive was recruited to bring in Apple-like innovation. Unfortunately, the transformation attempt did not work and Penney’s was still struggling several years later. The transformation was too big a change that did not fit the company’s existing business. In a situation like that, it wouldn’t really have helped to merely hire more inspirational middle managers to infuse the staff with enthusiasm and engagement. The result would be a staff that is enthusiastic about the wrong strategy, a strategy that fit poorly and could not work without major adjustment.

    Of course, examples like Penney’s certainly don’t mean that adding inspirational middle managers lacks benefits. As the Gallup study found, companies can indeed benefit if inspirational middle managers increase employee engagement and encourage alignment with the company’s purpose. But, based upon my study of business success and failure patterns, an important point here is that using inspirational managers can work so much better, if the strategy is right. And, if the strategy is a complete misfit, inspirational managers won’t solve a company’s poor performance.

    So, in conclusion, adding more inspirational middle managers can often be very helpful. But, don’t forget the importance of strategy.

    Changing Times Call for Winning Moves®

    If you’d like help thinking through strategic choices and evaluating strategies, contact us for presentations or consulting.

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