Has Your 'Good to Great' Gone from Mediocre to Downright Awful?

For the majority of the 5.4 million managers working in 30,000 companies, this certainly appears to be the case. As a country we are facing a crisis in management at proportions we have never seen. The magnitude of its effect is hard to predict and magnified due to the current economic meltdown.

Prior to all of our recent woes, a national survey of middle managers conducted by Accenture found that the level of satisfaction that managers reported with their companies had collapsed to an all time low of 48%. This came as shocking news to the business community. Many managers claim to have predicted this for years -- years where folks in the middle have been replaced by technology, displaced by consultants, handcuffed by red tape, distracted by mergers, spoofed in the media, and denigrated as low-value bureaucrats. No wonder so many people have lost their way and (worse) lost their desire.

Add to this the uncertainty of our business world today. It's difficult to think of an industry that isn't deep in the process of creative destruction, which has necessitated rapid reinvention. The music industry is in search of a new business model as are the industries in television and film. Look at what has happened on Wall Street and in factories of Detroit in the past year. Manufacturing is in dramatic change. Outsourcing continues to roll. Consolidation and de-consolidation abound. Corporate marriages and divorces are spinning at rates that make movie star marriages appear long term. And healthcare...don't even get me started there.

The fact is managers aren't having fun, and all of us seem to be looking for an exit strategy. Commuting times into the office are increasing as our streets are growing more congested, demands at home are rising as our children are getting older but failing to move out due to financial necessity. Once upon a time, we managed not only our careers but also our lives. Now, all we are looking for is a way out. But is jumping ship really the right solution?

While many of us fantasize about dropping everything and running off to the beach to start a B&B on a tropical secluded island, for most of us, dropping out is simply not the answer. Changing jobs and starting over? That might not be right either. In many cases, those who do change jobs find themselves trading one unpleasant reality for another. What's worse is that the risk of stunting one's careers and achieving far less success increases, especially as we get older.

In 1980, Harvard Professor John Kotter shattered some myths about management in his groundbreaking book, The General Managers. In it Kotter argued against the popular belief that managers need a great deal of specialized information and skill in order to be successful. According to Kotter, the best managers don't reach their highest degree of competency until they've been at their jobs for six to ten years. His contention was that good management skills require practice and are not as transferable between companies or industries as was once believed. The expertise of a veteran manager is invaluable and fundamentally not portable.

We're not saying managers shouldn't seek new opportunities. But managers who make the decision to change jobs should be running to something, not away from something.

My book, Ignited: Manager's Light Up Your Company and Career for More Power, More Purpose and More Success conducts a deep dive into the art and science of management. My research includes surveys and focused interviews with dozens of managers across a variety of industries. What I've found is that the forces above and below managers have tended to squeeze them into a corner, causing them to lose sight of the unique value they bring to the business. This has ultimately created a dangerous cycle, which has stripped middle managers of their once inventive and entrepreneurial spirit. There is, however, a way out. The following are a few key steps that managers can take to regain the power, purpose and success they lost.

  • Hit the Reset Button: With all the insanity around us it's time to take stock in our relationships. Within our roles, who do we depend on and who depends on us? What's the state of those relationships and how can we make them stronger? How are we meeting the needs of others and who do we need as allies to boost our performance as well the performance of those who work for us. Don't forget, our ability as leaders is sometimes judged by how well those below us perform.
  • Connect Deeply: With 100+ emails a day, 20 phone calls, and countless meetings it's sometimes impossible to get all the work done. That said, we must ask ourselves why things necessarily have to get done right at that moment. Perhaps instead of running ourselves into the ground with tasks, make time for listening. Take two twenty minute slots a day to really listen to those you work with. Make it an afternoon walk or a daily coffee and remember as Zig Ziglar said "people don't care what you know until they know that you care".
  • Focus on Your Unique Strengths: In a recent management study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, Que Quy Nguyen Huy wrote that "a new executive's fresh ideas don't have a prayer of succeeding unless they are married with the operating skills, vast networks, and credibility of veteran middle managers."The fact is, nobody gets it done like a veteran manager. They have the ability to translate vision from the top down into actionable milestones. They recognize trends, spot strategic inflection points, and maintain vendor/customer relationships. In short, they are the heart and soul of any business and any company's best competitive advantage.
  • Retool the Project Portfolio: Many managers come to the table with inspiration and ideas only to find lukewarm responses among politically charged environments. The uphill battle of seeing these ideas implemented seems to arduous and risky, thus many would rather let their ideas die a slow death than tackle the hard work of getting it right.No doubt you've got a whole portfolio of ideas that have yet to see the light of day. I know you're out there with your memo pads and working documents, scribbling away at new thoughts that come to mind every day. Well, here's my advice to you. Instead of leaving them seven folders down your hard drive, put them into a spreadsheet and take an inventory. Figure out easy ways that these notes can be implemented into the big ideas that you are conceptualizing. Even if you feel that your thoughts may not be particularly innovative, remember that some of the greatest ideas came out of small hunches and basic needs that were met.
  • Practice â€" Management Value Add: Millions of people, events, thoughts and interests are always pulling you in different directions. Start looking at each and thinking about the real value you bring to each of these influences. Do you really need to attend? A recent trend among managers has been to put up simple blogs and wikis to measure progress and questions related to a current project. Could you track your projects that way? If you're living in a world where appearances and optics mean everything, then go have a talk with you boss to align yourself with his/her goals. Figure out the goals of the company, and how you fit in. Then explain to your boss what you need to sacrifice in order to play the game of appearances. Ropes get tied easily. It's time to cut some.
  • Sell the Solutions with the Implications: Most of us know how to find a need and present a solution. Unfortunately, these solutions often land on the wrong or on deaf ears and never get put into action. Why does this happen? Most people are stuck in the immediacy of the now, and fail to realize future big picture implications. As managers, we must always have our eyes ahead, and must know what success, and more importantly, what failure can do to the company. Make sure to fully explore what happens if the problem isn't solved. Does the stock go down? Do we lose our jobs? Then focus on the implication of success. Are our options worth more? Do we get promoted? Does our life get easier?
There's no doubt, this thing we call "making it to the top" can sometimes be tough. But the Emerald City is within reach and we're on the right brick road. Soon, scores of boomers will retire to live out their B&B fantasies, leaving behind crucial gaps that will need to be filled. That is when our companies will need us to step up and lead. We've all been looking to pounce and jump start our road to the top, and trust me, your time is fast approaching.

So whether you feel like Jerry Garcia, who at the height of the social movement in the 60's said "somebody had to do something and it's just incredibly pathetic that it had to be us"--.or you feel emboldened and ready to standup and lead from the middle, the fact is that now is the time, and it's up to us to seize these opportunities.

Wishing you the Best,

Vince Thompson
Vince Thompson is the host of Dog and Pony and author of Ignited: Manager's Light Up Your Company and Career for More Power, More Purpose and More Success.