Strategy is something that many people believe only the highest echelon of senior management should have the power to influence. It’s mysterious and abstract. Untouchable corporate types sit stiffly staring out the window of the ivory tower and nervously clenching their hands, and when asked what they’re doing, no other explanation but the words, “I’m formulating strategy” is required. Small wonder that the rest of us have no idea what they’re actually up to. It also doesn’t help that, immediately after the launch of this year’s big new strategic initiative, nothing appreciable seems to have changed. There is little to measure, if anything, and people are left to wonder whether the strategy is working.
In the short term, we can’t see it and we can’t measure it, so how do we know whether our corporations are on the right track? Like spiritual beliefs, top-tier corporate strategy often requires that we take a leap of faith. Lacking complete candor from our senior leaders, we must assume that they have done the necessary research and that they wouldn’t lead us astray. We can make the choice to trust them and simply follow their lead. But we can also take a more-active role in the creation of strategy ourselves, not at the very highest level, but at exactly the level where we currently make our mark on the business.
Leaving the creation of business strategy only to the top ranks of senior management is a common practice. It is also a mistake. Strategy needs to not only come from the top down, but from the bottom up. In recent years, some of the most innovative business ideas have come from employees working at the very lowest levels of the business, and those ideas are making their companies millions. The employees who are coming up with these groundbreaking notions do not report to the senior leadership team—they report to front-line supervisors and mid-level managers. What this means is that the levels of leadership who may ultimately be the most instrumental in pushing strategic change forward are managers in the middle—those who have the ears of both top management and employees on the front lines.
These managers are equally influential for and visible to both groups because having a foothold in both worlds allows them to understand the business in a different, and more complete, way. They are privy to more information than most concerning the direction of the business, and they have at least a moderate grasp on the company’s strategic vision and its plans for the future. But they can also see how the business is actually running; they can clearly hear the concerns of the employees because they work with them day in and day out; many of them have a better idea of the challenges that the business faces and the strengths that it has because they work alongside the people who actually make the business run. Having a firm understanding of both the business’ tactical realities and its strategic possibilities provides these leaders with a perspective that is nothing short of enviable, both for its breadth and, in the right hands, for its power. But in order to use this unique position to its fullest capacity, managers in the middle must make a minor, but crucial, shift in the way they have traditionally been asked to think.
The formulation of strategy from mid-level positions requires that managers think of the parts of the business that they run as smaller businesses within the larger organization. Mind you, this is not strategy gone rogue. These managers aren’t setting out on their own paths with no guidance from their betters. Instead, they are using their unique position—having equal footing in two corporate camps—to create individual strategy that is aligned with the strategic vision of the larger organization. These managers must cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset, actively fanning the flames of ingenuity and creativity while remaining sensitive to concerns of cost, consumption of resources, the needs of their customers, and the tactics of the competition. They must figure out how to remain relevant in the future, and they must know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are moving their business functions forward in ways that are superior to their rivals.
You can be sure that the individuals doing the same jobs in competitor organizations have their fingers constantly on the pulse of the industry. Taking that pulse is less an act of curiosity and more one of compulsion. It is a symptom of a concern that we all share: self-preservation. We all want to matter. We all want to make a lasting impression. The greatest danger of obsolescence is that it comes so quietly, and by the time you see it leering at you, it’s already too late. Strategic thought is a tonic against being overcome by the next big thing, and managers in the middle may well hold the cup. Cheers!