Put yourself in the shoes of a shop floor engineer who is separated 7 levels away from the leadership of the company. You receive an org-wide email from the CEO detailing a new strategy and a new way of doing things.
What's going to be your first reaction?
It's going to be that of skepticism.
And it's easy to see why it would be natural for you to feel skeptical. You do not know the leadership, you've never met them and you do not trust them.
“Do they know what they're doing?”
“Do they know what my role looks like?”
“Do they have my best interests and incentives at heart?"
“Do they know how to do my job?”
“When was the last time they were on the shop floor?”
Being an employee working on-ground, you would be naturally suspicious of a memo being passed down from someone sitting high up — someone you haven't even met, let alone have a working relationship with. And it would be rational of you to do so.
But now, if you had a direct supervisor who understands the nitty-gritty of your job and can explain what that abstract strategy-level change means for you in concrete terms, you would immediately understand and buy into the proposal.
Simply because your supervisor gets the context of your work.
You may even trust the CEO, but unless you're certain they know what your job looks like day in and day out, you will always take whatever they say with a large bag of salt.
You see, in a small company, with fewer than 10 people, everything is tangible. The founder knows all her employees and everyone in the team more or less has an idea of what's going on. More importantly, everyone in the team has a more direct relationship with and stake in whatever's being discussed.
But as the company scales and gets larger, employees become entries on excel sheets and databases, and outcomes turn into metrics that not everyone fully understands.
A high-level strategy is only useful if it can be sufficiently made concrete based on every employee's working context. It's difficult to follow an abstract vision if you do not know what it means for your job.
Here's where middle managers come into the picture. A good middle manager helps you make the abstract, concrete.
For example, it's not "bias for action", it is
"Feel free to go ahead without my permission and execute on tasks and decisions that you feel are a. easily reversible, and b. can move the needle if executed well. And no need to create overhead for yourself by involving too many team members or ask their permission, just try to do it with the least number of people involved, ideally only you."
It's not "a high bar for quality" or “transparent communication”, it is
"You can let me know if you need more time or want to extend the deadline if you're not happy with your work so far or you think that it won't be received well by our customers."
It's not "radical candour", it is
"You can safely disagree on Slack with other team members or express your dislike for certain pieces of work without worrying about offending people. But make sure your feedback is valuable and not empty criticism."
Any change requires,
- Concrete actions to establish that trust.
And trust doesn't scale.
Middle managers are reservoirs of trust, and they build it by establishing a good rapport with their subordinates and making abstract statements concrete.
It's not that communication from the leadership is totally useless, but that it is fundamental and abstract. And it has to be because it has to encompass all roles within the organisation.
Having said that, employees working on-ground still need to be sure that the change being asked of them is not just a wishy-washy and hopeful one-liner that doesn't really change existing behaviour, but that the organisation is taking it seriously at all levels, even if it comes at an expense of existing work.
So, the next time your CEO comes out with some fancy but abstract corporate-wide communication, make sure you ask yourself what it means for you as a manager and what it means for the people who are reporting to you.
Enjoy your weekend. And do send across your thoughts and suggestions.