In any organization of size, there are usually three distinct levels of management. No matter how many managers there are, or layered the levels, there are still only three. Each layer has a critical strategic function to perform and in successful organizations, these levels are tightly aligned in unity of purpose and direction. So, how does your organization stacks up?
At the top of the organization lives SENIOR MANAGEMENT. Although many managers with considerable longevity and seniority think of themselves as senior managers, as I use the term, the senior management level is a fairly small group. It consists of the CEOs, Presidents, and/or Directors, and the heads of the organization’s major operating units whatever their titles. Everybody else at this level is staff.
Senior Management’s responsibility and critical strategic function is to set the direction for the organization. Whether you call it a vision, a strategic goal, or the organization’s core objective, the best are clear, simple in expression, and thoroughly understandable throughout the organization. Some good examples: being number 1 or 2 in every business they owned and operated was GE’s core objective during the Jack Welsh era; FedEx’s core objective is to deliver, on time, anywhere in the world; Apple’s motto is to “think differently” a vision that drives a passion for innovation that continues to redefine the world of computing and tele-communicating; and Southwest Airlines aims at being America’s “Low Cost, Low Fare Airline”. All of these objectives are clear and easy to understand. But can they be achieved?
This points to the second critical strategic function of Senior Management: working tirelessly to ensure that every part of their organization thinks and operates in ways that are consistent with achieving the stated strategic goal. Usually referred to as achieving alignment, a vision or strategic objective is of little value unless senior management insists on — and ensures by placing the right managers in the right jobs — the operating discipline and daily behavior — top to bottom — necessary to achieve it.
Next, at the foundation of an organization, we find LINE MANAGEMENT. This management level’s strategic function, simply put, is to ensure that the daily work of the organization gets done. Line managers can easily recognize themselves because they have no subordinate managers reporting to them. Their direct reports are the organization’s daily workforce.
Succeeding as a line manager demands the skill to cope with a broad range of human behavior, especially the ability to motivate effort and initiative, resolve conflict, and give directions and set expectations with clarity. Line managers are option one for answers when employees have questions about organizational goals and objectives, and the meaning of the latest pronouncement from the top. Moreover, they are essential to the process of directing daily behavior throughout the workforce that furthers and realizes the vision established for their enterprise.
But will line managers provide answers and information that are consistent with the organizational vision? Will they be able to direct and motivate the workforce in ways that make that vision an operational reality? Much depends on the success of our third level of management — MIDDLE MANAGEMENT — in executing their critical strategic function: translating the vision of senior management into concrete, tangible, usable things; that is, the programs, policies, daily practices, procedures, resources, and talent needed by line management and the workforce who ultimately must realize the vision in the every-day world of their work.
Middle managers are, therefore, the organization’s management intermediaries. They must translate an abstraction — a vision or core objective — into something concrete, comprehensible, and broadly recognizable as the vision in action. For example, the iPhone and the iPad are Apple’s concrete manifestations of innovation. The fact that it is Southwest Airlines’ practice not to serve meals on their flights, to have their flight attendants — not a cleaning crew — clean up the cabin after landing, and to avoid landing at some airports because of their expensive landing rights and gate usage fees, helps them to keep their ticket prices low.
In addition, middle management is critical to the process of ensuring that important messages communicated up and down an organization are simple, clear, and consistent; everybody hearing about the same thing. When a workforce clearly understands what senior management wants, when senior management pronouncements are clearly understood throughout the organization, and when every employee can explain the organization’s vision to a stranger, middle management is doing its job. Conversely, senior management frustration that its vision and intended direction is poorly understood by the workforce, or when line managers are unhappy with the support and answers they are receiving from above, it’s a good bet that middle management is failing in its effort to connect the organization’s top with those working on the line. No surprise that when organizations choose to thin out their management ranks, the thinning usually occurs in the middle, in hopes of improving top down communication and goal alignment.
Of course there is no such thing as a perfectly aligned organization. Even the most successful organizations still have their management dysfunctions and are susceptible to the temptation to stand pat, when a changing environment suggests the need to align around a revised sense of direction. Nevertheless, to the degree that your organization can achieve a high degree of alignment — each level of management working hard to fulfill its core strategic function — the organization’s chances for business and mission success are dramatically improved.