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Why Middles Matter

One of my clients recently asked me for advice about handling the merger of two corporate cultures after her company purchased another one. About three months had passed and key people from the purchased company were leaving. Because of the nature of the industry, those people were also taking some of their customers with them. During exit interviews she kept hearing that there was a feeling that the “new” culture wasn’t for them. Nothing concrete, just a feeling that things were trending in the wrong direction. When I asked her what had been changed with the acquired company she said that the only things they had changed were related to HR and some different procedures for reporting. Strangely, to her, she kept hearing complaints about the changes to the compensation plan. She thought they would be happy since the new plan was superior.

What advice would you give this person? What would you do?

Here is what I did:

First I asked her who she thought were the most powerful people in any organization? Is it the CEO (or whatever you call the BIG boss)? Is it your customers? Is it your staff? What do you think? (she got this one wrong)

I told her that is she wanted to effectively drive change through the organization she needed to get her low-level leaders on board and make them partners in co-creating the new culture because they are the people that will make or break any change initiative. Not the CEO, not the VP, not the staff. They are important but they don’t have the same power over the success of change.

After 15+ years of working with organizations to fix people problems I can say with confidence that the power to impact the success or failure of your organization lays with what Barry Oshry calls the “middles”. They are the people that are interacting with the people (staff) that are delivering value to your customers. They are the holders of what we call “culture”. If they fail to adequately turn the organization’s strategy/vision into action, it won’t happen (that’s why so many change initiative fail). If they don’t deal with issues such as staff conflict and customer concerns, things can go downhill fast. That’s how you lose good employees, block your succession-planning pipeline, and lose customers.

If you accept that your middles are significant, and you want your changes to stick, then the objective is to get alignment with your mid-level leadership. (I am assuming you already have alignment at the senior leadership level. If you don’t have that then you are in for a rough ride!). When you bring your middles together you have an opportunity to get shared understanding and buy-in about strategy, direction, and objectives. You also have a chance to identify challenges/concerns and to come together on solutions. Through this process you co-create the new culture and you get alignment as a by-product.

Middle alignment can be achieved in three steps.

1. Create a common language and process for communicating and discussing important issues/challenges/conflicts

* In merging cultures, this is often where differences collide

2. Engage in discussion about direction/strategy/etc. Discuss your middle’s challenges in achieving that direction

* Middle challenges are often not the same as top/bottom challenges and sharing them builds connection and resiliency (shared problems don’t feel as heavy as individual ones)

3. Problem solve to address those challenges

* You will be surprised by the innovation that can come from this level of an organization and by involving them they will buy in more

When it comes to achieving middle alignment, bringing enough of your middles together to go through a shared process will get you there faster and more completely than any other approach (I recommend at least 70% of them). This can be done as an “everyone together” type approach or dividing the group into smaller sub-groups can do it too (operational considerations usually drive this choice). Each sub-group should be a cross section of the organization (i.e. people from different branches and with different jobs).

Bring your middles together will help them to create a common language they can use in discussing issues with their staff and with their superiors (that’s why they are middles, they are in between these two powerful forces). I often use conflict resolution skills and/or a Myers Briggs type tool to build the foundation. Once the common language/approach is established, move into more substantive conversations to identify objectives and barriers. It helps if a couple of senior people are in the room too – this helps deliver a clear message, demonstrates the importance of the process, and will give your leadership a great window into what is happening on the ground.

When you go through change, you will get resistance and we all know that communication is key but how well are your middles delivering your message/vision? Are they representing what you want from them? Are they dealing with challenges effectively (or ignoring them in the hopes that they will go away)? The key to success is how well your first leadership level handles the inevitable issues that come up and how well they communicate through the process.

This is, of course an incomplete picture (it’s a blog, not a book!) and there are other significant factors but in my work over the years the issue of middle alignment (or the lack of) has been consistent and the value of shared experience/language/skills/problem solving/etc. has been proven over and over.

If you would like to hear more, contact Lane for a free initial consultation/discussion.

Lane Sherman is an organizational consultant, trainer, and facilitator. He lives in Kelowna where he runs his consulting agency, PeopleStuff, working across BC and Alberta. Lane is the author of “The Keys To Collaboration: How to build a great team or fix the one you’ve got”. He helps organizations through change, facilitates key conversations, speaks at conventions and events, delivers training and development, and intervenes to help toxic teams/workplaces recover.

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