Saturday, 20 November 2010

The critical leadership role of middle managers in these austere times

Public service middle managers will experience heavy loads of stress as the implications of the austerity measures are rolled out in coming months. They will be the people tasked to deliver the redundancy bad news to staff. They may well have little say in the decisions being taken. These managers will probably see the shape of the services they have helped to build, reshaped and reduced before their eyes. And they too may suffer a redundancy fate at the end of it all.

Throughout all this, these managers may well seek to juggle their deep commitment to the value of the service they manage & the people they serve, their need for ‘survival’ in this employment climate (& not put their heads too far above the parapet) and their desire to keep work & family life in some semblance of balance.

It is a gross understatement to say that this will not be easy.

But this is not an article to plead on their behalf – there are many others who will suffer too, not least the many (often vulnerable) citizens who will be getting lower of levels of critical services in the future. Instead I want to put forward some ideas about how these middle managers might play a critical leadership role as these looming cuts are rolled out.

For me the most important challenge to face in these coming months will be whether the cuts are used to simply reduce / ‘salami slice’ the existing services or whether bold & creative decisions will be taken to mitigate the cuts (as far as possible) by doing things differently. I contend that middle managers are best placed to do the latter while senior managers may well be under huge pressure (from their governance bodies) to do the former.

Middle managers know their services inside out. And whilst they may have a strong attachment to the current ways of doing business, their inside knowledge means that they have the potential to see some fresh green saplings instead of the old big trees. Whether this potential is realised or not will depend upon the leadership role that they adopt.

If the middle managers pursue a compliant style of leadership and seek only to implement the demands for resource cutting, there is little chance of innovation and new ways being found to deliver more with less. These middle managers may gamble on saving their own jobs by being good soldiers. But this will be a gamble. (I once met someone who was instructed to make his whole team of nine people redundant. He spent 10½  hours that day talking with each person, doing what he could to make the ‘brown envelope’ an opportunity and not a curse. Finally at around 7.30pm he returned to his own office to find his own brown envelope, just left squarely on his desk. He set fire to his filing cabinet.)

There is an alternative leadership role. (And from the discussions I have had with middle managers, many are and will be seeking to adopt this approach. I wish them well.) This approach seeks to create the room for manoeuvre to find the new ways of doing business. These might be radical innovations or just simple small changes that can lead to much higher performance, such that services and possibly jobs can be saved. This is not a leadership style for the faint hearted.

This leadership involves: 
  • Being as strategic as the senior managers through understanding the past, present and future of the organisation, grasping the particular pressures which are being faced and having a vision of what could be. 
  • Having the courage and deft footwork to challenge and question decisions from higher up the organisation, in ways that make the people who have made those decisions wriggle, but not squirm. 
  • Being prepared to practise an inspirational & facilitative style of leadership which enables and encourages junior staff to think creatively and express their own bold ideas which will finesse the resources and find superlative efficiency & effectiveness 
  • Deeply knowing what the public want and need, and being able to show clearly how proposals for newly redesigned services will come far closer to meeting their requirements and delivering social outcomes. 
  • Maintaining honesty and transparency throughout, so that even if there is no job at the end, everyone will observe that the manager will still have their integrity. (In the end, that is all any of us have.) 
  • Knowing what questions to ask of all involved that will liberate new ways of doing business. Just asking, for example, the simple question “is there anyone who provides this service far better than us?” can prompt a radical shift in existing methods. (When the first budget airline realised they could cut costs dramatically by keeping their aeroplanes in the air more and on the ground less, they searched for who was doing this extremely well. They learnt a huge amount from a Formula One team who showed them how do a pit stop in 9 seconds.) 
  • Having the skills (and being able to share these) to redesign a service so that fewer resources are spent on ‘fire-fighting’ and more priority is given to prevention and systemic fixes that can head off the expensive mistakes.
Sometimes dramatic improvements are staring us in the face and when we finally see them we wonder how we could not have seen them before. One council I was working with had experienced something like this when they looked at how they repaired street lights. The original method involved taking a call from a member of the public that a street light was not working. An engineer was dispatched (at dusk?) to check that indeed the light was not working. If (as was invariably the case) it was not, a second engineer was then sent out to fix it. All this took a while and involved two journeys. They then changed their assumption from ‘we cannot believe the public’ to ‘we can believe the public’. As a consequence only one engineer is now despatched to fix a street light that has been reported as faulty.

This leads me on to declaring what I think is the most important attribute of this more progressive middle management leadership: 
  • Having the capability to learn from the past (and possibly even chuckle about it) but not be attached to tradition. True, this is very hard to do in any organisation that is wracked with fear, blame and a belief that changing old ways necessarily involves a loss of face. But I believe (I have to believe) this is still possible, even in such organisations. Certainly if not now, then when? If this is not a time to let go of old & inefficient practises, when will it be?
If you are a politician or senior manager reading this, my challenge to you is what can you do to allow, enable and support your middle managers to act in these ways?

Putting the politics aside about whether now is the right time to be implementing extensive and deep reductions in public expenditure (I leave that to the politicians and economists to debate), it is always the right time for any manager to be putting in place radical improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. As Machiavelli said “a common failing of mankind [is] never to anticipate a storm when the sea is calm. A wise prince … must never take things easy in times of peace”.

Now that the storm has arrived, many people I fear are rushing to construct the world of public services as one large spreadsheet with lots of compartmentalised budget cells to slice and dice. I hope that the progressive middle managers will have the courage to practice leadership that calmly but dynamically acts in the interests of all of our futures.

But it won’t be easy!


  1. Great article Jon. I'm seeing a range of responses to the cuts from public sector managers...

    In my opinion the most intelligent responses include service improvements through methods such as systems thinking, and efficiency savings through a more collaborative approach to service delivery - i.e. strategic commissioning.

  2. Thanks Jon. Yours is a good article too. Thanks for the link. Have you seen my sister blog on small creative ideas - which is about frontline led improvement?