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LEADING CHANGE FROM THE MIDDLE

by Nigel Batty on 02 Jul 2014

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Driving successful change demands active engagement and change leadership at every level of the business. In my experience, technology led projects and programmes are quick to develop clear strategies for engaging the top of the organisation as leaders and equipping the bottom of the organisation to work in a new way. Too often, there is a blind spot for one of the most critical stakeholder groups in any organisation – the middle managers.

Senior management are engaged as sponsors and stakeholders for the change, having 'skin in the game' as the beneficiaries of the cost savings or growth opportunities that the project will deliver. At the other end of the spectrum, the end users are the focus of specific and targeted communication, training and support activities as they are prepared for go-live. The missing link in the chain is the middle ground of the first line management group and the extended leadership team in the business. They are the voice most trusted by the end users, are the group most impacted by the demands of managing the transition to the new way of working and whose own behaviours and values most directly shape and embed the change.

If effectively engaged as change champions and agents, middle managers are able to make the right resource available at the right time, can endorse sponsors messages and translate them into practical changes on the ground, they can set positive expectations and lead by example. They are also an invaluable early warning system for practicalities that the project team may have overlooked and for areas of the business that are not tracking to be ready for the change.

If overlooked, the middle managers are very susceptible to becoming an impermeable layer of passive resistance, putting the programme at high risk of stalling or under-delivering. In practice, mitigating this risk can be achieved with a targeted engagement approach to bridge the gap. For example:

  • Priming  the senior stakeholder group to set the expectation that their middle managers will take an active role in landing the change
  • Building on this by gearing the programme's engagement strategy to drive ownership through consultation. In practice this means creating opportunities to draw on middle management insight and experience to understand the impacts of the change at a granular level as well as to develop well targeted change interventions that give them an active role in landing the change
  • Continuing to consult with them on change readiness pre go-live and embedment of the change post go-live
  • Supporting the middle management group to explore their own (personal) reaction to the change, the leadership challenges that they will be confronted by and to create space for them to reflect on how they can respond to these positively.
  • Aligning with the leadership development programme for the business – positioning the programme as an opportunity to practice and demonstrate leadership skills.
  • It is also important to explicitly target this demographic group when change readiness is being measured or feedback gathered.

I hope that these tips are both thought provoking and useful for others who are involved in driving transformational business change. My grateful acknowledgment to Scott Bell, Alan Greenwood, Karen Mitchell and David A; all of whom took the time to post their insights on our recent on-line discussion in this topic (see Linked In for the BIE Leaders in Transformation group discussion board). If you have a point of view or experience to share in this area, the discussion is still open and I look forward to hearing from you.

How to approach your business transformation

Topics: business transformation

Nigel Batty

Written by Nigel Batty