Kaya Consulting

Middle managers failing to think strategically? You need to talk about work.

Middle managers failing to think strategically? You need to talk about work.

Is there a lack of innovation and strategic leadership within your middle management ranks? Are tactical day-to-day tasks eating up your managers’ time and energy? Are your systems stagnating? That was the problem for one of our clients – a nationwide not-for-profit community care organisation. And the solution we developed started, not with a costly overhaul of systems or the management structure, but some straightforward conversations about work.

Clarifying the nature of work for our client’s managers
We were engaged to conduct some leadership coaching sessions with our client’s Level 2 (first line) and Level 3 (middle) managers. After a series of conversations about the work of leadership and the nature work, it quickly became clear that both Level 2 and Level 3 managers were struggling to operate at the appropriate level.

The Level 3 managers were, in fact, focusing on Level 2 work. Instead of thinking strategically and innovatively to improve systems and service delivery in the medium and long term, they were giving their time and energy to day-to-day operational management – the role of Level 2 managers.

It’s a common situation that creates a downward spiral of wasted time, frustration, compromised levels of trust and, ultimately, an organisation where nobody is preparing for the future effectively.

The goal: Get everyone working at the right level
We needed Level 2 managers with the capability (skills, knowledge, experience) and capacity (time and energy) to handle their Level 2 work. This, in turn, would give Level 3 managers the confidence, time and energy to focus on strategic systems thinking: setting the business up for the future, innovating new business models and planning for changes in funding and the marketplace in general.

In short, the Level 2 managers had to step up to their Level 2 roles, and the Level 3 managers had to step away from the comfort zone of Level 2 work and step up to embrace their Level 3 managerial leadership role.

Helping Level 3 managers let go by helping Level 2 managers step up
The first step in rectifying the problem was working out how to remove the burden of Level 2 management from Level 3 managers, so we started by looking at the Level 2 strata and found that:

  • managers were duplicating work
  • there were gaps in Level 2 capability
  • some Level 2 managers had the capability, but it wasn’t being used effectively.

From there, we mapped the organisation’s Level 2 management team at an individual capability level. This highlighted:

  • a number of succession planning issues
  • organisational dysfunctionality (e.g. individuals with lower capability trying to manage individuals with higher capability)
  • some individuals in Level 2 management positions who would not be able to step up and fulfil their Level 2 role.

Our personal development coaching program
Armed with this vital intelligence about the capability of Level 2 managers, we embarked on a two-year personal development program, comprising joint Level 2 and Level 3 coaching sessions.

We facilitated a series of discussions designed to develop capability and change the thinking of both management tiers, underpinned by an understanding of the nature of their work, their respective leadership roles and the capabilities and mental models individual managers needed to develop.

Eventually, we found that both sets of managers became much clearer about their roles and the level of work that was required. They began asking themselves the right questions, such as:

  • How do I inspire change to adapt to new, innovative models within our established culture?
  • How do we become responsive when there are constraints in organisational systems at operational levels?
  • How do we give people control without compromising direct-care staff safety?
  • Our mental models focus on 5{be38fd1e2c946a347db4d7316b241dce4b842100e7b38236661610f0dce6def9} error/challenges, not on 95{be38fd1e2c946a347db4d7316b241dce4b842100e7b38236661610f0dce6def9} success. How should I coach?
  • How are we going to be nimble when some of our systems/capability is hard to change, slow to move or difficult to influence?
  • Is the team structured correctly for the coming change?
  • Have I identified the top three systems that require improvement?

This was a key milestone in the managers’ development journeys, marking a heightened awareness about themselves as individuals, their work and their role in the success of the organisation.

Level 2 capability that led to Level 3 capacity
Over time, with this heightened awareness, Level 3 managers used our sessions as a platform for developing the capability of their Level 2 managers (a key part of their Level 3 role), which slowly released the Level 3 managers from the Level 2 duties that had been distracting them.

Now, with the physical and mental space they needed, as well as confidence in their Level 2 managers, the Level 3 managers were free to apply themselves to pressing strategic issues:

  • evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of current systems
  • optimising systems to improve service delivery in the short term
  • assessing the challenges and opportunities ahead for the organisation
  • developing new systems and better ways of meeting their clients’ changing needs
  • stepping back and innovating new service delivery and business models that will enable the organisation to adapt to changing market conditions and demands.

Level 2 and Level 3 working in synch and in flow This is clearly a story about ensuring Level 2 and Level 3 managers complement each other and work effectively. But it’s about more than that. There’s an important ripple effect.

Instead of a downward spiral of frustration, deteriorating trust and wasted time and energy, we’ve created an upward cycle of continuous improvement and a culture defined by professional fulfilment.

Instead of feeling out of their depth or aggrieved at the lack of trust their managers displayed, the Level 2 managers now feel focused and valued. They understand their role and how to succeed.

Instead of having to use evenings and weekend to think about strategic challenges, the Level 3 managers now have the time and the physical, emotional and mental energy to focus on setting the organisation up for the future.

Instead of feeling frustrated, both tiers of management now feel engaged. We’ve nurtured capability, capacity and a natural harmony, known as ‘working in flow’ – a collective state of mind where everyone is maximising their value to the organisation, and enjoying it.

Read more real-world stories that demonstrate the value of organisational psychology in developing and harnessing capability and capacity, or talk to us about the leadership development challenges you’re facing.

Jan Sipsma is an organisational psychologist and founding partner of Kaya. With over 20 years of international experience as an organisational effectiveness consultant, he specialises in strategic planning, organisational architecture and design, change management, capability and performance enhancement and the identification and development of leadership. He has a Masters of Commerce (Industrial Psychology) cum laude and is a registered member of the Australian Psychological Society.