Many of our clients are looking for ways to respond to the demands of an environment of rapid change and uncertainty. They realise that traditional top-down strategy implementation doesn't always provide the flexibility and creative responsiveness needed to execute on strategy.
Perhaps we need to rethink lines of accountability and responsibility, team leadership and performance management, creating leaders at every level of the organisation.
Changing middle and frontline manager roles
A 2016 Hay Group paper points out that companies need to understand how the roles of middle and frontline managers have changed, along with the teams they manage.
Where we once relied on a relatively stable, top-down chain of command, with a one way flow of information and direction, we now have flattened and matrixed organisations that can respond to customer needs with more agility. Where the role of middle and frontline managers was simply to ensure that strategy was implemented efficiently we now see more faceted roles emerging, where the visioning, strategic awareness, decision-making ethos and motivational roles more suggestive of ‘senior management’ are now needed up, down and across the organisation.
In my view this change of structure and ethos has been around for a long time, but what is interesting is that in many cases our understanding of how to support middle and frontline management in this new management story has not advanced.
What do middle/frontline managers need?
Frontline and middle managers face a relentless 24/7 flow of information and communication from all directions. This is both a benefit and a challenge. The performance expected of this cohort is not always matched with the tools and empowerment to do the job.
The people who execute and implement strategy – middle and frontline managers and staff (and we’re talking about 80% of your company here) – are the ones who interact with the customer base. These people need to be empowered to feed intelligence back up the line, to make decisions for the customer and sometimes, to make mistakes.
‘More and more positions require employees with deeper expertise, more independent judgement, and better problem-solving skills. They are shouldering very great responsibilities in their interactions with customers and business partners, and creating value in ways that industrial era performance management systems struggle to identify.’ McKinsey 2016
We have yet to create a compelling narrative around the work of these managers. We are also still struggling with creating a new story around how teams can work.
What is the new story?
The new team story is, I think, one of pluralism and diversity: generations, ethnicities, genders, abilities, experiences, thoughts and styles. It’s also one of varied and evolving structures: virtual, remote, rotating, fluid and flexible. That same Hays report sees the new middle and frontline management narrative as one of customer response (external focus) as well as supporting the team to implement (internal focus).
Leadership at all levels
I think it’s all about enacting leadership at middle/frontline levels. It’s about equipping managers in particular with the strategic and decision-making skills, along with the autonomy and empowerment, to make customer - time responses that are in the interests of the company. It is also about delegating in ways that motivate and develop their teams. Other competencies needed might be emotional intelligence, boundary spanning, and the ability to create a compelling vision for the team. (Hays Group 2016)
The 2016 McKinsey paper on performance management claims that the most important thing these team leaders can do is to create meaning for their teams. In one study this was rated the single most important motivation factor – above compensation.
Performance management or performance coaching?
The same McKinsey paper talks about changing approaches to performance management. The authors discuss a range of initiatives, such as the adoption of ongoing coaching at Netflix to address the impossibility of relying on constantly shifting objectives for evaluation. I think that some of the approaches mentioned have been around for a while. Nevertheless I do like that we are opening up a discussion about what works in the 21st century.
These authors recommend replacing the time and resources spent on cumbersome (annual) performance management processes with real time coaching to raise performance levels.
Without great and frequent coaching, it’s difficult to set goals flexibly and often, to help employees stretch their jobs, or to give people greater responsibility and autonomy while demanding more expertise and judgement from them. McKinsey 2016
One of the Hays Group recommendations is using technology – enabled learning. This is what we’ve been doing in our company with the introduction of our Coachlive service. Through it, we are focusing on delivering executive level coaching to frontline and middle managers.
So far the feedback has been great! With coaching that is individualised, context-specific, and application-based, we’re able to solve those old learning transfer problems associated with workplace training. We’ve been able to give managers in frontline roles the development and support they deserve. And by using cutting-edge technology and highly efficient coaching processes, we deliver all of this at a fraction of the cost of regular executive coaching.
I’d be interested to hear from others about developing leadership at all levels of the organisation, and about managing team performance in this new era. If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, please contact me using the link below.