Leading from the Middle

Organizational change, the mantra goes, must come from the top. Not necessarily.
by | April 19, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

In his Harvard Business Review article "Change Management in Government," Frank Ostroff wrote, "In any change effort, you need to start at the top and then quickly move to ensure participation and support of a broad cross-section of employees." This is a common theme. But in fact effective organizational change can be and often is pushed, promoted and achieved by government's much-maligned middle managers. Here are four pillars of a program of change management from the middle.

First, don't talk about "change." The word is laden with baggage and often sounds like some sort of flavor-of-the-month program of more work for everyone in the organization. Talk about what is "OK" and "not OK" in the organization. Most of us see and agree with a list of things that are not OK in our organizations. Engage your peers and those immediately above and below you in conversations aimed at identifying points of agreement on what is not OK and how to move toward a better place.

Build relationships. Organizations are shaped by their culture, and that culture is the result of "conversations that matter." Idle chatter about sports or the weather is a place to start, but the conversations you want to move toward are those that touch on the things that really matter to your colleagues. For some it's family, for others it's the mission or purpose of the organization, for still others it may be issues of faith — but for most it is some combination of these and other things. To lead people, you have to be able to identify and connect with what is important to them.

Use the "troika": evidence, ideology and anecdote. As you move to conversations that matter you will learn about evidence — facts and data — that support the belief that a particular situation is not OK and show a potential path forward. There are lots of reasons to do the right thing, and as you learn the ideology of the people you're attempting to lead you can emphasize those reasons that will resonate with them. Finally, as you talk with your colleagues, listen for anecdotes that support the point made by the facts and data you are using to support your position.

Look for access points. There are places within an organization — such as internal training programs, the development and redesign of policies and procedures, and the promulgation of professional standards — that can profoundly shape the direction of the organization by diffusing new ideas and innovations. Volunteer or get yourself appointed to work in these access points.

Many mid-level managers are quiet professionals. Often they have been with the organization through many cycles of leadership at the top and understand the organization better and are more committed to the mission than top leadership. They don't have to wait for visionary leadership at the top. They can — and do — create positive change from where they are, in the middle of the organization.

(I want to thank Gary VanLandingham of the Pew Charitable Trusts for the idea of the "troika." A version of this column was presented at the 2012 Conference of the State and Local Government Benefits Association in San Francisco.)