Middle management: a critical link for transformation

Studies show that the success of business transformation projects depends primarily on employee commitment. However, the traditional approach to change management, which nevertheless leads to the failure of nearly 75 percent of projects, consists in placing middle managers at the heart of the transformation process. While middle managers may be the driving force behind their team’s acceptance of changes in the field, should they be the only proponents of change? The Inside Success Lab, the first think tank dedicated to business transformation, met last May to discuss the following questions:

  • What is middle management’s role in the transformation cycle?
  • What direction and assistance should middle managers receive so that they are able to meet their responsibility to support transformation?
  • What KPIs should be implemented in order to measure middle management’s commitment to and impact on transformation?

Roles and responsibilities of middle management

What is the role of a middle manager?

Middle managers appoint team leaders or department managers within a company. Generally speaking, middle managers are found at all levels of management. In terms of transformation projects, some companies confide in their managers, explaining the impetus for change. This allows managers to fully support upcoming changes. In any event, middle managers are tasked with taking ownership of these changes as well as implementing them. 

While the role of the transformation director is to embody the transformation, conveying its meaning and messages and coordinating projects globally, that of the middle manager consists, through his/her proximity to the field, of conveying messages and coordinating local projects by defining their modalities. Middle managers are therefore key players when it comes to change management.

What place and positioning should be accorded to managers?

Nowadays, transformation is continuous, and projects have multiplied by eightfold in recent years. The number of projects per manager has therefore increased considerably. Companies must adapt to this new situation by further developing the roles and tools they make available to managers, while freeing up time for these managers to lead their teams. 

Some transformation departments decide to bring about change on their own, thus dispensing with middle management altogether. They do this by directly involving all the employees concerned. Result: while some managers may not initially appreciate this approach, they have no choice but to follow the movement once they see their team’s newfound commitment. 

Of course, this approach may cause friction. It is therefore recommended to involve middle managers as much as possible, ideally in an iterative, bottom-up & top-down process. 

At any rate, in order to meet the challenge of mass acceptance, multiplying both the channels and means makes it possible to maximize impact and thus success. InsideBoard was founded on this approach, an approach that directly addresses all the actors of transformation, through a complete range of employee engagement levers (continuous communication, gamification, ambassadors, skill development paths, etc.), so that no one feels left out. The digital platform allows transformation project teams to industrialize and automate as many tasks as possible. It also conserves resources and cuts down on training costs.  

Middle managers: their challenges and expectations

An increase in the number of projects per manager

Faced with an increasing number of transformation projects, upper management has difficulty prioritizing projects that then become bottlenecked at the middle management level; middle managers do not know how to prioritize or do not have the power to do so. Paradoxically, their company’s deliverability requirements are increasingly high. 

In order to proceed, it is necessary to recontextualize projects as a whole, giving managers a multi-project vision of the company’s global transformation at the risk of seeing them choose their own battles and voluntarily reject certain projects. 

The difficulties faced by managers may also involve other elements: hierarchical changes and thus orientations that shift, contradictory messages from upper management, strong pressure regarding expected numbers, end users who are not necessarily digitally inclined, etc.

A lack of shared vision and a tendency to undervalue communication

Managers are waiting for a common vision that is aligned with that of upper management. The most frequently asked questions by middle managers are why and how. Yet there is too often a lack of consistency and understanding; there is a perceptual gap between upper management and managers. Too much information is imparted to the latter in an impersonal way. Result: messages are not absorbed and there is a resulting lack of commitment. 

Providing a “macro” view is important, but one shouldn’t forget to communicate the benefits of transformation on an individual basis. To this end, one sound practice is to clearly define macro objectives while co-constructing micro objectives with managers. The transformation department must then continuously promote them, while involving the managers. The added value created through projects should thus be communicated to employees in the context of their daily activities. 

A lack of resources and revamped job descriptions

Middle managers also expect to be given the means to transform themselves and support their teams (tools, budgets, resources, time). They often cite the lack of resources made available to them to disseminate the transformation to their teams. It is also important to give them the necessary time to appropriate this transformation. Otherwise, managers will find themselves swamped (and thus discouraged) on a daily basis. They should be relieved of administrative tasks to help them refocus on their core mission, which is to lead their teams. Today, this implies a shift in the manager’s role, as his/her profession becomes that of a “manager-coach.”

This is particularly true when the transformation is subject to severe budgetary constraints, thus creating a gap between the perception desired by the company and the efforts required of employees. The latter’s working environment is directly impacted by these changes in the short term, while the long-term benefits are difficult to perceive.

In such a challenging context of transformation, various questions arise within companies. Are managers the only ones responsible when change fails? How can we empower managers and employees so that everyone can take ownership of projects at their own pace? What change management tools should be given to middle management?

What type of guidance should middle managers receive?

Managers are no less open to change than other employees. The question thus arises: is it not the role of the company’s upper management to better support their managers in the transformation process? But what type of guidance and assistance should middle managers receive so that they are able to meet their responsibility to support transformation? We can compare the project launch to a product launch in which we need to free up time and work on messaging, marketing, and coordination over time. 

Free up their time 

In the current corporate environment, middle managers are overextended. It is thus essential to help them refocus on their managerial role, so that they are able to support their teams. Here are some good practices shared by Inside Success Lab members: 

  • Free up time in managers’ workdays; gather them together for a discussion period, with the acknowledged risk that this will only last for a short time. 
  • Define priorities: identifying the time to devote to various projects each year is a critical issue.
  • Define the actions to be implemented in each project, then include them in managers’ schedules and ensure that they are recognized by upper management.

Equip them by giving them product marketing essentials

When transformation projects fail, it is often because managers do not have the necessary tools or a real marketing plan to drive change once the project is launched. “Managers are 3.9 times more likely to bring a project to fruition if they are given the viral tools necessary to relay and implement the initiatives and actions related to transformation within their teams” (source: How to beat the transformation odds, McKinsey & Company).

  • Providing managers with the digital tools to coordinate project teams is a prerequisite for success when projects multiply.
  • The provision of project marketing essentials means that everyone receives the right message and that managers are not required to create and distribute the information themselves (e.g. weekly communication kits, discussion points, managerial group newsletters containing key information and the progress made on major projects, etc.).
  • Use a variety of formats to boost investment in the project (presentation seminars, videos, workshops with peer-to-peer interaction, gamification, internal and external media relations plans, big boss talks, weekly webinars).

Highlight the role of middle management

If managers are to play an active role implementing the transformation, they must convey the results of their team and benefit from its success. Two levers may be used to this end: 

  • recognition of the manager in the presence of teams and upper management (communications to emphasize the project’s value, managerial interviews, etc.)
  • contractual recognition in job descriptions.

Maintain collective emulation over time

  • By identifying managers-ambassadors and creating managerial communities. Objective: coordinate managers and give them the essential tools for engaging teams (examples of corporate practices: calls for applications to recruit ambassadors, the regular rotation of managers-ambassadors).
  • Through the implementation of common indicators and objectives reviewed on an annual basis (examples of corporate practices: defining a major KPI to mobilize everyone, e.g. co-constructing KPIs with managers to adapt indicators to the field, decoupling them according to business lines with a common ranking, offering a satisfaction survey based on the NPS, setting up KSIs (Key Success Indicator) for various KPIs based on success and promoting leadership among teams and continuous ambassadorship communities).
  • Through the implementation of individual objectives (examples: variable bonuses included in employment contracts).
  • Through the provision of a digital platform integrated with work and omnichannel tools, i.e. bringing together complementary coordination drivers (gamification, social communication, skills development pathways, the sharing of good practices, etc.), enabling managers to lead teams towards defined achievements.
  • By using digital tools to reach all managers, thus saving time and reducing costs.
  • By adopting a “step-by-step” approach that facilitates the appropriation of changes. This makes it possible to detect managers who are experiencing difficulties, in order to better support them (training courses, webinars, etc.). Providing digital support helps define an appropriate pace for each project. A good practice is to establish sessions dedicated to middle managers. It is, however, important to provide follow-up to ensure that this occurs in the context of their daily work.

Digital platform use makes it possible to maintain the momentum created within the management community over time. It gives them visibility with respect to all projects and allows them to lead their teams.

How should performance and results be measured?

For companies to achieve an ROI on transformation projects, they must meet a dual challenge:  they must succeed in achieving employee acceptance and sustain it in order to enhance performance over the long term. How can we empower managers to direct and measure transformation at their level and do so for teams on an ongoing basis? And how do we measure project success at the corporate level?

  • Reporting methods and indicators should be co-constructed in order to reflect the reality in the field as closely as possible: indicators should be reexamined every year to track the progression of performance over time (EXCOM expectations and team feedback should be taken into account).
  • The manager’s individual performance and the collective performance of teams should be measured: KPIs, which are different for managers and employees, should be defined (KSIs for adherence, commitment, and performance).
  • Managers should be given the opportunity to visualize results simply and in real time so that they can position themselves with respect to both target objectives and other teams. 
  • The company should be equipped to measure the results of middle management and teams and to contextualize the project’s performance with respect to the company’s overall transformation (multi-project view). 
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