Middle Managers: The Key to Culture Change and Engagement



July 11, 2019


Middle Managers: The Key to Culture Change and Engagement

With the recent news of Lee Iacocca’s passing, a visionary who has been called of one of ‘America’s first celebrity CEOs’, many articles chronicling his unique leadership style have been published in his remembrance.  This particular articlehighlights the distinctive way in which he utilized his middle managers to take Ford to levels which exceeded even his own goals. 

Sunday Strategist: Lee Iacocca’s Middle-Management Magicby Kyle Stock


Stock writes, “In what would eventually become a textbook disruption strategy, Iacocca rounded up a small crew of overlooked and under-appreciated talent who were sure to be loyal”.  He then split these employees into teams and created a two-week competition in which the Mustang was born.  He repeatedly wrote about this strategy in several of his management books calling it a potential game changer for struggling organizations. 

He is quoted as saying in a 1982 interview that the single most important thing a CEO can do to maximize their company’s performance is to creatively, aggressively, and systematically build the capabilities of the company’s middle management team as they are indeed the ones who will hold the company’s culture in their hands.  Regardless of what initiatives senior management chooses, it is the middle-management teams that will ultimately determine whether they are successes or failures.  He not only understood inclusive leadership, he practiced it with almost every major decision. 

Middle managers personally know their employees; therefore, they know how to best execute the strategic plan of senior leadership.  A failure to utilize middle management for their knowledge, talent, and foresight can leave an organization feeling paralyzed and can quickly create a “victim” culture where employees feel powerless to change. 

Culture change requires a consistent effort across the organization.  However, middle managers often find themselves focused on vertical efforts of managing their functional area as opposed to their horizontal responsibilities of managing effective execution across the organization.  Therefore, by design they are often the most fragmented group of leaders in most organizations.  They may be aligned on goals, but their execution between departments may be vastly different from one another. 

He often would gather his middle-management away from their offices, many times out of town, where they would be forced to sit and create together, yet calling this “simple communication where I get to see people on a more personal level”. 

Iacocca believed that the essence of great management is great teaching; meaning that new innovations and organizational advancement can only come when the middle managers feel empowered to do so.  “The highest calling in management is to teach your managers to manage, and finding that hidden talent so that they are allowed to surprise you with their genius”.

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