The textbook answer as to whether middle managers should understand the objectives and the overall direction of their companies' strategic plans is that yes, middle managers should be familiar with the corporate strategic plan and how the daily work that they direct fits into it.
But are they?
Last year, researchers at Columbia University found that middle managers are more likely than both their lower-level colleagues and their superiors, to report symptoms of depression. One hypothesis about this was that middle managers are expected to enforce strategic decisions made by their superiors, but often are not involved in making these decisions.
There are two reasons why many middle managers feel excluded from strategic planning and the corporate vision:
First, their bosses are too consumed with strategy themselves to talk to their management reports. They fail to sit down with their middle managers to go over strategy and goals, and how these relate to daily work. Second, there is also a tendency for these higher level managers to foist all of the daily work on their middle managers just to offload it— without giving their managers much direction or strategic input.
Fortunately, there are some companies out there who get this dilemma.
Jack Welch, the legendary former Chairman and CEO of General Electric, insisted that every manager, from his direct reports down through the ranks of the most junior managers, knew strategy. Welch expected managers at all levels to be innovative, strategic and able to reinvent themselves if business conditions called for it. Managers were expected to lead with vision and enthusiasm, not just to manage.
In my own experience as a junior manager, I served under a CEO who also expected more of me than simply managing people and projects. I was expected to be able to explain how the work my business unit was doing supported corporate strategy. I also had to know the corporate financials and other critical industry ratios that my company was measured against.
However, the reality is that many companies do not give their junior managers this help. If you are a junior or middle manager in one of these companies, what steps can you take to educate yourself in strategy and then convey that information to your staff? And if you decide to do all of this, does it really matter?
If you are a middle manager aiming to move up in managerial ranks, you have to know strategy, because strategy is what matters to upper management. If your boss isn't communicating strategy to you, you can educate yourself by reading the company's quarterly and annual reports, and by making it your business to find out more about strategy, even if it means asking for a meeting with your boss to go over the strategic plan.
Next, it is advantageous to explain the strategic plan to your staff so they know how the work that they do fits into it.
When you give your staff an understanding of what the strategic plan is and how the work they do supports the plan, employees get a sense of purpose in their work, as well as a sense of inclusiveness with the company. Suddenly, a staff member faced with the highly repetitive task of hand-cleaning data at a computer all day can understand why clean data will contribute to higher data quality which in turn will contribute to greater accuracy in big data analytics findings that drive company decisions.
Middle managers should also consistently verify that the daily work staff is doing fits into the strategic plan. It is easy to get off course when enhancements that are not relevant to strategy are introduced into project work.
None of these tasks are necessarily easy for middle managers to do, especially when their own organizational superiors aren't supportive. But if you are a middle manager with the goal of rising into
upper management, you must understand strategy, and you will be a better manager if you can inform your staff on a regular basis why their work matters.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.