I had a conversation recently with a highly successful professional who, by traditional measures, has proven he knows what it takes to lead an enterprise to victory. But it wasn’t long before I was taken aback by something he said. As we were talking about the nature of my coaching clients, he interjected that he believes the biggest problem with large corporations is middle management. He went on to explain that middle managers are to blame for most of the failures within companies because, rather than making things happen for the organization, they act as a roadblock between upper management and front-line employees.
What struck me was how shortsighted he was. Yes, middle managers are responsible for motivating, inspiring and propelling front-line employees toward success for the organization. But that doesn’t mean that top management isn’t equally responsible (or even more so) for all that. Middle management’s failures are top management’s failures – just as folks in the C-suite can’t wholly take credit for the good things that happen in a company. It is symbiotic.
All executives must own their own piece of the puzzle and be autonomous enough to succeed in the roles for which they were hired. But it is important to remember the special responsibility those at the top bear. If you are a company founder, you need to also be a manager of people – of all levels of the organizational chart – in addition to working on strategy. If you are an aggressive middle manager who wants to move up, you have to understand that every rung you step on as you move up brings not only more authority, but more responsibility. I don’t care if your corporate pyramid is right side up or upside down. If you reside on the skinny point of the pyramid, then you are responsible for leading, mentoring and coaching.
This is the heart of corporate leadership. CEOs often forget the management part of leadership. They can be forgiven for doing so. CEOs spend a lot of time managing the most important customer relationships. They like to serve as chief engineer of their companies. They live to sell their companies’ services and products. All of those passions got them the jobs they have. But that isn’t true leadership. True leadership showing others the way, mentoring, inspiring and coaching your direct reports so they in turn become better leaders to mentor and coach their direct reports. Along with all the other responsibilities, the C-suite creates the culture, sets the tone of firm-wide leadership and fosters employees as they rise up the organizational chart.
Sometimes that means firing people. Other times it means moving people around, to ensure the right worker is tasked with the right role. And, despite how hands on you need to be, you have to walk that delicate balance to avoid micromanaging.
But leadership is about creating and guiding an environment built around success – for the newest hire all the way up to your own COO. It is also not for everyone. You might find that, of all the people in need of coaching, mentoring or a new job, you may need to be the prime candidate.
So the next time you find yourself complaining (out loud or in your head) about any of your people, ask yourself what you can do better to show them the way and lead them to victory. While there are always underperformers who we’re not able to help, if you are complaining about a whole group or a big section of your team, then chances are it’s not what they did to mess up your company. It is what you didn’t do to lead them.