“Our company had a big meeting a few weeks ago where the president laid out his vision. It means big changes and a lot of us were skeptical about it. But I have to say that by the end of his presentation, he had us all sold. It was pretty impressive.”
Frank had introduced himself during a break at a conference where I was speaking last week.
“Very impressive,” I responded. “What’s going to happen next?”
“I’m in charge of the eastern sales force. Part of the vision requires moving our sales force away from the corporate headquarters and closer to the properties we own so they can be close to our customer base. We have major properties in eight cities in my region, so my sales folks will relocate there.”
Frank was telling me what his people were going to be doing, not what he was going to do. It occurred to me the company might be in trouble unless their next step was helping Frank and his peers understand the important role they need to play.
One of the top reasons leaders fail to implement their vision is because they don’t manage the “mid-space.”
The biggest failure in implementing vision successfully is in not effectively managing the airspace between the 3000 ft view from the hot air balloon and the on-the-ground view of day-to-day activity.
The view on the ground looks quite different than it does when you’re way up high. The “mid-space” view translates the high level concept into practical action.
The Critical Role of Middle Management
Too often organizations don’t properly equip middle management to fulfill their role as a conduit between the front-line and senior management.
Frank has a major responsible for the mid-space – connecting the people on the ground with the vision so they understand their role and how they contribute to the vision. It’s up to him to help his people understand the implications of the vision on a day-by-day basis.
A charismatic sell, like the president’s, isn’t going to work for Frank, nor would it the best approach, even if he were oozing with charisma. Frank needs to engage in conversation with his people, not “sell” them.
Jumping From “Selling” to “Doing.”
A chief reason for failure in vision implementation is the bias in jumping from “selling” to “doing.” The mid-space requires involving.
To successfully navigate the mid-space, people need time to reflect on the meaning of the vision, the implications for themselves and their work, and to have an opportunity to give input into the vision itself.
When you involve people in creating the vision, they have a deeper understanding of what it really means and they become more committed to it because they see their contribution. And because they see the organization from a different perspective, they are likely to have ideas that will make the vision even stronger.
Leaders at all levels need to take responsibility to manage the “mid-space.”
Seven ways leaders at all levels connect the mid-space.
- Get your people’s recommendations on things that need to be considered, tweeked or modified in the vision and communicate that upward and with your peers.
- Hold conversations with your people on how to best implement. How will their daily activities need to change? What are their priorities? Help them remember the big picture and see how it translates to their work. If what they are doing does not support the vision, that activity should be modified or eliminated.
- Meet with your people frequently. It takes awhile for the vision to be embedded into daily life. Meanwhile, to help them stay on track, it is important to stay connected to help them set goals that are aligned with the vision, to track progress and help them problem-solve.
- Serve as an early-warning detector for organizational implementation issues. If you notice patterns occurring, check it out with your peers. For example, it may be that senior leaders are moving too quickly before the organization is prepared to support the change or an aspect of one of the overall implementation strategies might need to be changed.
- Find out what obstacles are likely to get in the way of your people being able to successfully implement. And then work with your peer team and senior leaders to remove them.
- Find out what resources your people will need, what new skills they might need to learn, and provide support so they can move forward as smoothly and easily as possible.
- Listen to their concerns as they figure out their own solutions. Be available just to listen, because change can be hard even when we are committed to it, and sometimes we just need to know someone understands and cares.
This idea of managing the “mid-space” is a great distinction Jesse. It does require a different kind of leadership that I don’t believe gets enough focus. Those who own the mid-space rather than simply occupy it are the ones who can help their people build bridges of meaning between who they are, what they know and what they do and the vision they likely had nothing to do with crafting, at least not directly, so they too can own it as if they casted the vision themselves.
Thanks for the great distinction and food for thought.
Hi Susan, It does indeed require a different kind of leadership. I was engaged in a conversation last night on Twitter about the distinction between manager and leader, or rather we were in agreement that there is no distinction. Managing in the mid-space is all about leadership, especially as you so beautifully put it “helping their people build bridges of meaning…” Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!
One of the things that occurred to me as I read this Jess was that one person’s “middle space” is another person’s 30,000 view and yet another person’s on the ground day to day work.
I think your defining this in between area in organizations is a function of reality — it just is. What we choose to fill it with, by whom, when, and why are the questions we need to be asking.
BTW: This is definitely whole article material. It’s a fresh perspective on an important part of organizational life that most have no language for let alone the awareness and insight to act on it in the ways you’ve highlighted above.
There IS a lot of space between the “up in the clouds” view and “on the ground.” The problem is a lot of the leaders I have worked with don’t choose to fill it with anything – they ignore it as though it doesn’t exist. So they either talk at a very strategic level or get too embroiled in the details of implementation and miss the opportunity to maneuver smoothly.
I agree that this is whole article material. I could tell story after story of ways this plays out. I just touched lightly on some of the issues like the role of middle management, the importance of involvement, and avoiding jumping from “selling” to “doing.”
My conversation with Frank actually began with him asking me if you need to be charismatic to communicate a vision. I had a whole section on that that I cut out because it made the post too long. It will be another topic in the near future.
Another issue is that the activities that need to take place in the mid-space are different from those at 30,000 feet and on the ground. Too many leaders think they can just announce the vision and hit the ground running.
Oh and by the way, everyone needs to take responsibility for the mid-space. I hope I didn’t give the impression that it is the sole responsibility of middle management.
I really appreciate what you said about this being a fresh perspective with no language or awareness. One of my hopes was to begin to create a language, which is why I have defined the term: “Mid-Space.”
As always, it’s great to get your views, Jake.
Jesse, another splendid blog. You are a brilliant resource for all things vision and team related – and much much more.
Thank you, Fay!
Thanks so much for this insight. We’ve been going through a major change in the last few months and the idea of the “mid space” is one I needed.
So glad this can be helpful for you in your change initiative, Stephen. Best wishes as you move forward.
This idea of involvement will come as a challenge to some who consider themselves as leaders. Its easy to cruise at 30,000 and demand the ground to be buzzing. But real leaders who can and will involve at that mid space are rare…rare but critical to success. You’ve got great suggestions here we can all take to the real world. Thanks Jesse.
I agree, Steve, that it is easier for leaders to cruise at 30,000 feet… or to jump in on the ground and micro-manage. I think part of the problem is they don’t know what else to do. As you point out, the key to the mid-space is involvement. I’m glad you found my suggestions for what to do helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding to the conversation!
Great post, and wonderful concept of “mid-space.” Unfortunately, mid-space is where the “Peters” of the “Peter Principle” end up. At this level, they certainly can’t lead, they can barely manage, but the “vision” comes from 30,000 feet and is expected to be executed without delay. Senior management has the largest responsibility in all this – it’s easier (and much more acceptable) to reach down and explain than it is to reach up and question.
Thank you for your insights today. I apologize for my negative tone, but I’m in my “dark night of the soul” period…!
I agree with you that senior management has the ultimate responsibility to ensure the success of the mid-space. Often what we see as the “Peter Principle” is actually a result of failure of leaders to help the managers they promote to develop the skills they need, by ensuring they understand their new role and by providing training, feedback, and accountability. Too often managers are rewarded for results and not for the way they manage or develop their people. I also agree that senior leaders need to reach down in the organization and not only welcome, feedback, but to seek. My intent on listing the 7 actions leaders can take was to give some concrete examples of ways leaders can support involvement. Unless they consciously decide to do otherwise, middle managers will naturally treat the people who report to them in the same way they are treated by senior managers. If senior management is only concerned with execution and does not see their responsibility for leading the process to engage the minds and hearts of everyone in the organization, the vision (if there truly is one) will fail. In that kind of situation, the best we can do, is focus on what’s in our span of control and make that magnificent. Sometimes one team or department can shine in the midst of darkness and serve as a beacon for others in the organization. I sympathize with your “dark night of the soul.” It can feel really hard sometimes.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Blake.
This little exchange reminds me of something my mentor Kathie Dannemiller used to say. Everything, and I mean everything, Kathie said you could bank on being a straight shot. Not unlike this one that comes to my mind as we discuss life in the middle: Don’t kick the victim!
Another thought: the Oshry’s work on tops, middles and bottoms would be a good frame for this work too.
Systems family therapy uses the term “IP” (Identified Patient) to describe the person the family sees as having the problem. Actually the IP is acting out the pain of the entire family system. From the larger perspective, in organizations that are in pain, they are all victims and deserve to be approached with respect and compassion. Thanks for the reminder about Barry Oshry’s work. I did a quick search and found this interesting article: http://www.executiveforum.com/PDFs/oshry_synopsis.pdf
I think it is important to distinguish management and strategy from leadership. Vision properly belongs to the latter. So moving a sales force, for example, is part of strategy rather than of vision. The latter is more abstract, or “big picture.” When a business practitioner conflates strategic management with leadership, it might look like gilding the lily–that is, putting a gold edge on strategy and management by attributing leadership characteristics to them.
I appreciate your points. I agree that strategy and vision are aspects of leadership behaviors. However, leaders need to manage and managers need to lead, and vision needs to be “owned” at all levels of the organization. The old idea that senior leaders are responsible for strategy and the rest of the organization is responsible for implementation just doesn’t work.
This is my favorite post of yours, so far. You’ve tackled ground that isn’t covered over and over by every blogger out there.
In conversation, most seem to understand the role of strategy as related to tactics and where the crossover is.
In practice, I rarely see it done well. You’ve made a good contribution here.
Thank you, Scott. You really understand the goal of my blog. There’s no need for another blogger to rehash the same things everyone else is saying. My intention is to either provide a new way of looking at a subject or practical advice on application. It’s easy to tell leaders what they should be doing. As a former executive, I know it’s not as easy as it sound or we’d all be doing it. I am particularly interested in the “mid-space” as I believe it has been ignored and yet is the key to connecting strategy and execution.