Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Leading from the middle

I was in the process of writing up some training/discussion material for the managers on my team when I realized that what I really wanted to communicate is that I wanted a team that was configured to lead from the middle, where a steep narrow pyramid of hierarchy was not needed. So I googled the term "leading from the middle" and got more than 15 million results. In a nutshell my idea was not "new" and tremendous amounts of research has been done on "leading from the middle". Nevertheless I will write my ideas down, knowing full well that most "good ideas" were already thought of.
In Organizations the three aspects of leading from the middle involve
  • Commitment, where one needs to be committed, understand the vision and purpose, and most importantly be competent to lead.
  • Managing your bosses and the people who report to you. This is an essential part of leading from the middle, and comes from confidence of knowledge of the market, the customers, the technologies, the processes, and very importantly your own organization
  • Leading from the middle of an ecosystem of businesses/organisations that compliment your own business/organization.

Commitment is a choice, a choice of ownership of the organization that you choose to lead from the middle. In leading a team, it is important to distinguish commitment from competence. There are a lot of competent people with out commitment or passion. And one of the things I have learnt over the years of managing people, is that passion is the more difficult aspect to inculcate.

In an age where most information is a google search away, the confidence of knowledge, is often mistaken to be an abstract concept, and the confidence of knowing is mistaken to be the confidence of having accomplished the things you know about. Achieving the goals of your organization, working through the details and having it done yourself gives you the ultimate knowledge. Case studies etc. can not substitute experience , they can only offer some insight.

Leading from the middle of an ecosystem really means partnership. It means to truly build internal and external partners who compliment your organization. Conceptually building partnerships is easy, but in practise it is very difficult. From a business perspective, partnerships have different shades, like technology partners, commercial partners, Industry focused partners etc. One of the most natural tendencies in many partnerships that I have seen, are for the partners to look for exit strategies even before the partnership really matures. Thought of exit strategies come up because one believes that their organization could get better margins without the partner, because the partners get "scared" of dependency, and a score of other reason. Ultimately, looking for exit strategies is an excuse , often the main reason is because you do not want the partner to be extremely successful.

On a final note, not all people can lead from the middle. The challenge for senior management is to identify and encourage the right people to lead from the middle. This requires the courage at an organizational level to encourage friction!!


Michael and Lori Schneider said...

Great article. I agree with your three main points - commitment, confidence in knowledge, and the ecosystem (both internally and externally). You can see really commitment and leadership when faced with the choice to take the difficult path that requires more of you and your team vs. easy path/action that will yield lesser results. In the end, commitment and leadership will lead you to take the RIGHT path, not the hardest or easiest. This comes with the confidence in your knowledge shows you the RIGHT path. Without any experience on the execution side it is almost impossible to know when and how to push and when you should find alternative ways. Finally, I have personally been blessed in my current venture with a great ecosystem of partners internal to the organization. With such a commited ecosystem (not looking for an exit), more gets accomplished and the results will be much better.

Thanks for a good reminder of the importance of these three principals.

Brian said...

I would bet many people can relate to this article (I know I can). Very valid points regarding commitment, confidence of knowledge and ecosystem. Not having any one of those ingredients and it could spell issues for you or your organization as a whole.