Leading From the Middle, 3Rs of Success

is_150828_middle_management_tug_o_war_800x600If you are a Middle Manager like me, you know you have the hardest job in the world.  If you are going to be successful in this role I have learned there are three traits you will have to acquire:

Be Resourceful:  Since you are not at the top of your organization you cannot prioritize your initiatives.  This often means you will have to be creative and find other revenue streams, other cost savings, and creative options to make your projects happen.

Be Relational:  Many times you will not have all the resources you will need to make things happen, so you will have to rely upon relationships you have created and good will you have established with others in your organization.  This means you will have to give more than you take.  Genuine servanthood will be key to achieve things when you lead from the middle.

Be Resilient:  Despite your best efforts, sometimes your priorities will not rise to the top for the organization, or worse yet they do and you fail to make the priority successful.  It will happen if you lead from the middle long enough.  When it does you will have to brush it off and start looking for the next way you can have impact.  You cannot lead from the middle while looking backwards.


“It’s Best Practice!” the new “Cause I said so!”

Remember the good ol days?!

Do you remember as a kid when your Mom or Dad told you to do something that you did not want to do, or at least not right then.  The “discussion” went back and forth. You came up with every reason that you should not have to do it.  When that failed you gave all the reasons it could wait until later.  Finally you would make the costly fatal mistake.  You would ask something in exasperation like, “Why do I have to do it right this minute?!” to which the “discussion” ending answer would be stated authoritatively:  “Cause I said so!”

I  have two sons, 20 and 17 years old.  Long gone are the days when that phrase works for me at home!  Furthermore, as an emotionally intelligent leader, I have avoided using such language in the work place unless it is completely unavoidable.  I can count on one hand the number of times I have used it in 28 years as a leader, and count on one finger the times I have felt good about it afterwards!

Thankfully, a couple of weeks ago, some colleagues educated me on another phrase that can be used in the workplace as effectively as my parents’ infamous “Cause I said so!”

We are implementing an expedited service, spanning a large part of the organization.  What normally takes hours we are going to do in minutes.  In order to achieve this,  I needed something from a support department that would allow us to perform mock run tests of the system under the new time constraints to identify potential failure points and make necessary adjustments.

Without getting into details let’s just say that what I thought was a simple request was not seen that way by my colleagues in this support area.  In fact, they thought that I should have come to them a lot sooner in the process and do it in a particular manner they preferred.  I thought my way was a lot easier, offered little risk, and asked them if they would make an exception to their normal process.

I don’t know if you have ever asked for an exception from a support service, but it can be a little like a kid trying to win an argument with his/her parents.  It’s an uphill battle at best, and useless at worst.  This time, however, I knew I had the high ground.  There were no new processes to speak of, and I just needed one little thing to be able to do our testing.  I am a persuasive guy, I knew I would convince them of my logical reasoning.

So… the discussion began.  I employed my best emotionally intelligent communication techniques.  I kept emotion out of it, listened more than talked and explained the logic behind my reasoning.  In the end, I failed!  They maintained it had to be done their way.  No exceptions could be made.  Then I did the unthinkable!  I asked that one question that brought about the end of all reasoning…  I asked, “Why not?”

Childhood memories and frustrations flooded back in when the Support Services representative gave me that look like I should know better and spoke these devastating words…”Because it’s best practice.”

Now, I know that there are evidenced based best practices in any industry, but I am in healthcare.  To acknowledge that you might do anything that goes against best practice is like saying you want to kill people!  That was it!  I was finished!

Since then, I have done an exhaustive literary search to find the study that supports the assertion that the way that they mandated was indeed best practice for my specific situation.  I have not found it yet.  We have burned through 120 man hours to create the test environment needed to follow their “best practice” and have at least 30 hours more to complete the task.  Conservatively, we are paying team members an average of $50 per hour for this project.  That’s $7,500.  Oh, and Mock Runs have been delayed for 3 weeks.

Don’t misunderstand, I am sure the end product will be great for the additional effort.  Not only that, I have a new tool in my belt to avoid the necessity to logically convince people about future initiatives I embark upon.  After all, I will only choose to pursue “Best Practice!”

Handling Difficult Conversations: Four H’s That Will Help

Do you know why leadership training is important?  Because there is often a gap between what we know and what we do.  No matter how many books you have read, how experienced you are, or conferences you have attended, you can always learn something new, and/or be reminded to do what you know to do.  Such was the case for me on Friday.

There I was, someone who considers himself an expert on leadership.  As I listened to a training session on handling difficult conversations, a topic I have lectured on myself in the past, I realized I had violated some of the basic principles being taught within the last 24 hours, with other people in the room!  At the next break, I made my apologies, and it led to an immediate improvement in a couple of key work relationships.  That is a day well spent, in spite of the work piling up back at the office!

As usual I write about what I am learning or need to remind myself, so here is the lesson I learned about dealing with difficult conversations on Friday.  It can be summed up by remembering four H’s:


This is where I went wrong last week.  Someone approached me indirectly about a situation that they believed I should have been able to resolve.  From my perspective, I had gone above and beyond, and was incredulous that someone would not recognize my contribution, let alone ask me to do more!  In essence, it offended my pride.  That is the first lesson of having successful difficult conversations.  You have to be humble.  Whether you are initiating the conversation, or someone else is engaging you in one, if pride is not laid aside, you will get defensive, and things will go south in a hurry!


The next three H’s all go together.  Our facilitator for this session encouraged us to handle difficult situations with a three-step process… Heart, Head, Heart.  It is similar to something I have learned and practiced for years, the “sandwich methodology,” where you sandwich a negative message between two positive messages, but it has a subtle difference that I believe increases the likelihood of success.  Here is how it works:

Heart:  When you begin a conversation you expect to be difficult, start by letting the recipient know you care.  It is more than a mere positive statement taught in the sandwich methodology.  Find what you can say to demonstrate you know he or she has value and worth.  Connect with his/her heart by showing you truly care.  No matter what difficult conversation you have to engage in, if you are truly looking to help the person, you can show that, and connect with him/her.

Head:  Now is the time to apply your logic.  The recipient knows you’re on their side and you want them to succeed.  That will enable you to communicate what it is that needs to change, or be accomplished.  It is also time for you to TRULY listen to relevant concerns or questions, though not to deflecting arguments, and work through and gain agreement on a plan.

Above, of course, is the ideal situation.  Sometimes it will not happen.  Sometimes despite your best reasoning, the other person will not agree.  The best you can hope for then is that he or she will at least acquiesce to authority, if you are his/her leader, or to civility, if it is a peer-to-peer, or employee to superior situation.

Heart:  Whether or not you come to agreement, gain acquiescence, or it is just time to terminate a fruitless conversation, in the last step you should again try to connect to the heart by letting the recipient know you appreciate their willingness to agree, try it your way, or at least give you his/her time to discuss the matter.  During the “head” phase, if you keep in mind you will have to end with a “heart” message, it will help you not allow the conversation to devolve.


Difficult discussions are a frequent occurrence in leadership.  I believe this tool will help me close the gap on what I know versus what I do as I strive to be the best leader possible.  Every day we strive, we become better.  Every day we don’t, we don’t.

Break Through the Barricades

imagesYesterday was a tough day.  It is budget season, and my meeting with leadership to discuss my capital priorities resulted in a total flip of my original rankings.  There is sound reasoning behind the decision, but it killed my main strategic priority for the next fiscal year and I was truly disappointed.

This morning, I was driving to work; still feeling defeated; replaying the discussion in my head; thinking about how I could have presented things in a more compelling manner; remembering getting side-tracked.  In short I was wishing for a do over!  I actually remember thinking to myself, “I guess I just need to let it go, and do what I can with what I have next year, and leave it at that.”  Just as I was thinking that thought, I arrived at our employee parking garage.

I pulled into the two lane entrance and there were 2 cars in each lane in front of me.  No movement.  Two cars pull in behind me.  Still nothing.  Within 60 seconds there were 12 cars lined up out into the road blocking traffic both ways.  The first two cars were just sitting there, nobody was doing anything.

So, I got out of my car, and briskly walked to the front of the line.  I swiped my badge for both drivers and the barricades lifted, allowing the first two cars to enter the garage, and the next two to pull up behind them.  I hurried to my car, and soon was in the garage myself.

As I drove to my usual parking place it occurred to me… That is my job as a leader.  I remove barricades that allow others to accomplish their work.  My failure to secure capital for next year’s strategic priority was one of those barriers.  There is work to be done. Since that work is healthcare, if I let the barricade stop us lives will be adversely effected.  I determined not to give up on the priority, but find a way to remove the barricade.

The rest of my morning I called and/or met with various leaders on how to accomplish the strategy without capital funding.  By mid morning, after some great input by people smarter than me, we had a working hypothesis that might just enable us to get where we want to go!  Further analysis is required, and approval is far from certain, but if that does not work we will go back to the drawing board and find another way.

I have done everything in healthcare from cleaning grease traps in dietary to gold shovel ground-breaking ceremonies as a Hospital CEO.  In my opinion, middle management is by far the hardest role.  You cannot set the priorities, yet all the people you lead expect you to provide them with the tools they need to do their jobs.  When that gets tough, you cannot (or at least should not) blame “Administration.”  In fact, to them, you ARE Administration!

To all of you serving in the middle, regardless of industry, thanks for the work you do. People’s jobs depend on you doing them well.  Healthcare middle managers, as you know, not only jobs, but lives depend on you!  Be proud of your role.  If you succeed in the middle, you can succeed at the top!