After spending over 1,000 hours per year with CEO’s I have an observation, companies break in the middle.
Hold a stick with both hands at each end. Your right hand is the CEO, your left hand is the front-line employee. Everything in between is the middle. Now bend the stick…until it breaks.
The break will happen somewhere in the middle. No matter the strength of the branch, it will break with the right amount of pressure. This is why it is so important to pay attention to the middle.
All of us can relate to an entry-level position, whether it was as an ice cream scooper or a car wash attendant. These are the people we see and talk to directly.
In most companies, the CEO is the most visible person and fully responsible for the organization’s success or failure.
It is those in the middle who are hidden, disregarded, and unknown.
CEOs must pay attention to the middle. We need to look, measure, and assess the strength of the people in the middle.
To build a healthy and growing company the middle must be strong and resilient.
“Please, don’t tell Bob.”
Sally was responsible for the financial reporting of her company, She was seeing weakening in the financial performance and went to the operations person at her level, Ray.
The conversation went something like this;
Sally- “Sales are weakening, margins are compressed. Something is not right, Ray.”
Ray- “Thanks for letting me know that, I’m working on it, I’ll keep you posted.”
“Oh and please don’t tell Bob, (the CEO), he won’t understand.”
From a relationship standpoint, as peers, they believed that to be the best thing for the company.
A few months passed, the numbers worsened, forcing Sally to go back to Ray.
Sally- “It doesn’t look like it’s getting better.”
Ray- “I know, I know, I’m going to need to make a change. In fact, I hope to make that change with this person soon. It's going to make things better. Just don’t tell Bob.”
Sally and Ray were not competing for the same role, but they were working at the same level. They thought first of themselves and their relationship…even though it was damaging to the company.
Eventually the numbers blew up and and everyone became aware of the problem. It was revealed that there was theft and misappropriation, all kinds of bad stuff was happening in this area. Profits fell. Jobs were lost. Relationships were damaged.
People were asking how this could have gone on, how was it not uncovered?
Sally knew about it. Ray knew about it. Others in the middle could see it coming.
There is no stronger sign of a weak middle than major surprises.
Bob had to step in and take quick action. It was not pretty. The company broke-- in the middle.
Strengthen the Middle
I’ve seen stories, like the one above, unfold many times. And the size of the company doesn’t matter. If there is a middle then there is opportunity for it to weaken.
I’ve observed five primary reasons “the middles” are weak in companies today.
As a kid, I was a Super-Duper Dipper at Polar Bear Ashburn’s Ice Cream Parlor (yes, that was really my job title!). I had a clearly defined role; customers enter the store, I would greet them and ask what flavor they would like, they’d answer, I dip the ice cream and receive payment. When there were no customers, I had a list of tasks to do.
Once I was promoted to Senior Super-Duper Dipper, that small step up created exponential change. I now had to supervise two Super-Duper Dippers who had once been my peers.
Because I was a good individual contributor, I was given more responsibility. This responsibility came suddenly and without any training or guidance. As I entered the middle, I felt unprepared and unqualified. My focus changed from the work coming to me to needing to get work done through others.
The first reason the middle is weak is we often promote the best person as an individual contributor and expect them to be able to get that level of performance from others.
Managing is different than doing. Leading requires training, specific skills, and a mindset. Leadership qualities can emerge from anyone. Those qualities must be fed and nurtured for that person to grow into a leader.
Focus on the Culture
People who are in the middle want to move up in the middle. And for most companies, there’s a path and a trajectory to do that. I hear people talk all the time about “I should be acting in the role that is the next one up in the chain for me.”
The problem arises when they’re not acting in the role that the company needs and instead they focus on what is most important for the role they want.
Ray felt as though admitting there was a problem would put a target on his back. This created a culture that was damaging to the company, especially among those who saw what was happening. Ray set the example of “don’t admit you’re wrong or need help.” Sally’s complicity only allowed that harmful culture to grow.
In a sense, Sally and Ray were rowing in the direction opposite the rest of the company.
To create a healthy culture, one where everyone is rowing together and in the same direction, the CEO needs to get out and visit them directly. Interjecting herself or himself into team meetings and being available to chat with anyone. Through this face-to-face interaction, CEOs can ask to determine if the observed culture matches the desired culture.
Culture is an everyday occurrence. It is people experiencing the environment in such a way that they are inspired, motivated, and move towards the vision and beliefs that the company has.
Clarify the Direction
The middle has omnidirectional concerns. What I mean by this is they want to please their boss above them, produce strong performances from those below them, and they feel a sense of competition with those around them.
Not a healthy focus.
It takes leadership, investment and intent from the CEO to break this cycle.
Build an Environment of Accountability
Finally, accountability can easily disappear and be deflected in the middle. Trying to hold someone else accountable is like trying to eat their lunch for them. It just can’t be done.
An environment of accountability occurs when roles are clearly defined, responsibility is accepted and conflict is addressed and resolved. People who have their own motives and motivations for not saying something end up allowing things to bubble up to a point where they explode. Their actions, or inaction, deeply impact the business without the CEO knowing about it. It’s a huge problem that happens again and again and again and again.
The Flow of Communication
Communication ties all of these together.
Sally and Ray were talking… the conversation stayed between them.
Bob should have also been in regular contact with Sally and Ray through one-to-one conversations.
A one-to-one can be a brief conversation to cover a few routine questions, one of them being “Is there anything, from your point of view, that concerns you about the health of the company?”
One-to-ones are not exclusive to CEOs’ and senior level management. Anyone within a company who is in a management position, should be having one-to-ones. This practice, done consistently, will allow information from the bottom to funnel upwards and back.
Some companies are large and the flow of information can become impeded by many layers, causing the middle to become weak and the stick to break. This is why communication is so vital.
Sally and Ray, because of their lack of communication outside their friendship, caused an island to form. This island, though small, kept information from moving back and forth along the stick. In the end, it damaged the company.
Bob, being the CEO, was the right hand on the stick. Sally and Ray, in spite of being high up in the company, were in the middle.
Had Bob strengthened the middle, following the suggestions mentioned above, it was entirely possible for him to create extra hands, through Sally and Ray, to hold onto the stick.
With more hands to steady the stick, the middle will become stronger and more resilient to problems.
So what’s happening in the middle of your company?
Is communication a constant? Are you investing in strengthening the middle?
Focusing on the middle allows communication to flow freely, builds future leaders and strengthens your company. Make your team “unbreakable”.