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.


Goal Setting: Ready, Fire, Aim! Oops!

I never seem to get where I want to go as fast as I want to get there.  Does that mean I failed?

I work in healthcare, and things my team sets out to do have serious implications.  If we set a goal of implementing a new chest pain protocol by July 1st to reduce the length of time from door to definitive diagnosis for chest pain patients from 27 hours to 16 hours, and the protocol does not get implemented until September, and the length of time only drops to 18 hours did we fail?  Absolutely not!  But if my team’s raises or bonuses were tied to those hard numbers, and therefore the team did not get rewarded, would they feel like they have failed?  Of course!  Such is the danger with aggressive goal setting as a leader.

On the other side, if all we are looking to do as a leadership team is put goals in place that are easy to achieve so we all get bonuses, we will constantly lag compared to market leaders who take risks and innovate.  So what is the answer?

I believe the secret is all in the “aim.”  If you want to hit the target of being best in class, these three tips on aiming will help you hit the mark:

Aim High

The great motivational speaker Les Brown said, “Most people fail NOT because the aim to high, but because they aim to low and hit the target.”  Many organizations fall into this trap.  They hit their goals and make their budgets year after year, yet they fall in the middle of the pack compared to the competition.  Why?  They have no stretch in their goals.  Nothing to make them strive and innovate.  Nothing that will differentiate them from the herd.  They are the organizations of which Jim Collins wrote when he talked about Good being the enemy of Great.  If you want to be great, aim high!

Aim Small, Miss Small

My favorite movie of all time is “The Patriot.”   My favorite scene in the movie is when Mel Gibson’s character takes his two very young sons, probably 8 and 10, to rescue his older son that has been taken into captivity by the redcoats.  The 10 year-old is scared to death as his father hands him a gun and he realizes he is getting ready to shoot at soldiers.  His father stops and looks him in the eye, grabs him by both shoulders and asks, “What have I taught you about shooting?”  The son answers, “Aim Small, Miss Small.”  The wise father knew that if the boy shot at a line of 20 red coats, they could not win. But if he focused on his small target, one six- inch patch of red cloth at a time, their chances would improve.

“Aim small miss small” is good advice in business as well.  Goals need to be cascaded in a way that is focused.  Let’s say there is a facility goal of making 4% operating margin (typical for a hospital).  This principle would tell us to make goals focused on what the individual manager or team member can TRULY contribute to that goal.  For example, housekeepers may have a goal for turnaround of rooms between patients, nurses may focus on patient satisfaction to improve word of mouth and grow volume.  The business office might focus on reducing A/R to improve cash flow so we can pay accounts payable in 10 days and get a 2% discount on our payables.  Decision support might commit to developing meaning financial performance dashboards for key areas, etc.

Instead, we usually see this goal cascaded to managers as “achieve budget targets” then volume drops, managers cannot bring in business, fixed costs have to be covered, budgets are not achievable, and leaders are de-motivated by their goals.

Aim to Please

The final key to goal setting is to make sure your aim is focused in the right direction.    Too often our goals are focused on what is good for us personally or our organizations.  Actually, that is like pointing the gun at ourselves.  We all know the likely result of that activity!

Instead we need to “aim to please.”  By that, I mean “to serve.”  In hospitals we aim to please patients, for you it may be customers.  Whoever it is your business is aiming to reach, filter every goal you consider against the question, “Will that goal help us serve?”  If not, it is not worthy of your time and attention.  Eliminate it and move on to one that does.

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!