I work as a middle manager in an operating unit of a large corporation.

The operating unit is a key strategic unit for the company, yet it structurally underperforms. I am talking big money here - we typically leave $100m - $200m of value on the table on a typical year!!

The culture is partly to blame: a mix of complacency and politics that slow everything to a crawl. Another factor is that the unit is a key springboard for middle management to the higher ranks of the organisation. Managers - myself included - fight for air space, visibility and short-term results rather than long-term value creation.

Almost everyone within the unit recognises the issues and the importance to turn things around, yet it all comes to too little when push comes to shove.

I am struggling with the dilemma. I could just stay put, gain the stripes and move on, but professionally and for the good of the corporation I really would like to start contributing turning things around, leveraging a critical mass of like-minded people.

But how to do this effectively, from the middle ranks, without a strong power base and without risking political or career suicide?

Simply put, is this a realistic challenge?
If so, what would be a good path to follow?
Anyone out there with any useful advice to share?


jhack's picture

Staying put, performing well, and earning your stripes is compatible with contributing to turning things around (unless your company is hopelessly messed up, in which case you should be buffing up your resume.)

Several thoughts:

- You provide inadequate detail for a proper response (possibly with good reason.) It seems unlikely that "almost everyone within the unit recognises the issues" and still no one does anything. What, specifically, is holding back progress? Are good people moved out? Is it churn? Are the folks at the very top NOT on board?

- Do well, get promoted, and make the needed changes. What's wrong with that plan?

- Good senior people like to see initiative from the ranks, if it is handled professionally. Often, middle managers try to do too much ("we need sweeping reorganization") rather than pick one thing that a group of middle managers has the ability to do themselves ("let's get together for lunch twice a week to figure out how to reduce inventory by 15%"). Do that, and you'll find out if there really is a common understanding of the issues, or if it's really just a culture of griping.

- I don't know what "structurally underperforms" means.


FlyingDutchman's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
If I summarize your comment correctly, you are advising to leave the BHAG of turning the organisation around for the moment, focus on getting on with incremental improvements, getting promoted and then taking it from there.

And indeed, that is precisely my current course.

Many of us work incrementally, focussing indeed on improving 10% here, 15% there.
I am a great supporter of hard work and incremental improvement. It is difficult enough and done well it's all that is needed most of the times.
In an attempt to turn our cost performance around, we are undertaking a cost excellence initiative including bottom-up Kaizens. The results are encouraging, thus we can channel this energy in broader initiatives. However we have done similar initiatives in the past and the results, equally encouraging in the short term, have been short lived because yet again the sense of urgency behind eventually faltered.

You ask what specifically holds back progress. I mentioned complacency. While at individual level most recognize the urgency, at the back of everyone's minds we know that while the company will continue to challenge us, they can realistically only expect to improve things a little at best and accept the outcomes.
This reflects on the people behaviours, managers and individual contributors alike, not consistently driving performance.

Because of the springboard effect, most manager commitment for the longer term is missing. Interestingly enough, griping is rife with the rank-and-file. They blame us managers precisely because we come and go, without addressing their fundamental problems.

With all that in mind, deep inside I already know the only rational course of action is to stay the course as you suggested.

It still bothers me that in the meantime we will continue to destroy value and underperform. Structurally here means year in, year out.

Thanks again and regards

jhack's picture

Initiatives that show only short term improvement are probably the result of the "Hawthorne Effect." See

Basically, no changes were made. No new processes, just a temporary jolt of energy because managers were inspired. Lasting change requires more than an initiative.

Lasting change means that the way people work changes, for good. New processes. New systems. Not just more effort.

BTW, don't know how many of the Manager Tools podcasts you've had a chance to absorb, so indulge me if you're up to speed. The basics (one on ones, coaching, and feedback) are truly transformative. "Creating a sense of urgency" is obviously germaine to your situation.

For what it's worth, griping in the rank and file about management is nearly ubiquitous. And I would submit that the fundamental problem is that managers aren't being held accountable for performance. Hold yourself and your team to higher standards.