Unfreezing the Middle

Many commentators on the state of business have observed that much potential for high impact leadership lies unrecognized and unfulfilled in today’s organizations. We have heard executives express the essence of the challenge with this penetrating assessment:

“We are frozen in the middle.”

What do these executives see as frozen?

The cog and wheel synchronicity between levels of leaders needed to achieve results is not occurring at the needed levels. Key initiatives are either stuck, or their ability to make a difference is eroding. Greater alignment, accountability, agility and resourcefulness is needed among multiple levels of leaders to drive outcomes.

How do we unfreeze the middle? How do we break through the ice jam and liberate the unfulfilled potential for leadership to achieve results? Our answer is that we need to do a few different things.

We must prepare leaders to perform critical leadership functions in ways that acknowledge and optimize critical synchronicities. How?

1. Enhance Leadership Development

Today, leadership development programs often focus on a specific level of leaders. For example, companies routinely implement development programs for senior level, midlevel leaders and first level leaders. Bringing together people that face similar challenges and have like skill development needs build skills contributes to leadership effectiveness. However, part of our effort to build the capabilities of individual leaders is to enhance their ability to achieve synchronization with other levels of leaders.

A relatable example of this is seen in how the military and airlines prepare crews to perform. To help aircrews operate in a dynamic and time-compressed environment in which different leadership functions are successfully coordinated, aircrew development programs focus on effective coordination in an ongoing way.

Crew members are helped to break through rigid command and control practices that tend to evolve when people enter hierarchical relationships. These programs use training and simulations to help crew members work together to manage hierarchy, build trust and leverage expertise In the service of decision making quality.

We recommend leveraging these ideas to enhance leadership development. This means:

• Training people to understand where the collaboration between levels of leadership is most important and what the greatest dangers for counter-productive patterns to emerge
• Having participants perform mission-critical coordination in simulation environments and debrief their effectiveness
• Provide leaders tools that help leaders synchronize their efforts with others leaders

2. Combine Learning and Doing in Real Work.

Upon the foundation of leadership development outlined above, we can help intact leadership teams learn how to do and do differently on real work. Once again we borrow from aircrew training where intact crews can learn together in classroom and simulation environments that closely mirror challenging real world problem scenarios.

We can go beyond building capabilities through simulations to helping teams of leaders work more effectively on real work. Many organizations today periodically convene teams of multiple levels of leaders assigned to strategic initiatives to keep this work on track. We can add to these sessions by helping teams better accomplish hand-offs between levels of leaders. We can use surveys, checklist and the support of coaches to see that feedback and feedfoward occurs – critical inputs that enhance the quality and efficiency of hand-offs between levels of leaders.

With a few smart investments in helping people think and do differently we can break the ice jams that stall or impair the implementation of important initiatives. The need to act is in now. If we do not, we increase the likelihood the organizational change initiatives will continue to produce the less than needed 30% success rate that has defined the outcomes over the last few decades and limit the work satisfaction that drives individual leaders to high level of performance.

Let’s break the ice jam and unfreeze the middle.

Tom Rose, Ph.D. will be publishing a book, Managing the Leading Edge, with McGraw Hill in 2017

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