Tuesday, February 2, 2010

MIddle Management--A New Vision

Arguably the most interesting and compelling article on leadership and management that I've encountered in the past few years is "What Makes Leaders Succeed" in the November 2009 Korn/Ferry Briefings. Essentially a summary of a longer scholarly schedule to appear in a future issue of Leadership Quarterly, the article lays out the results of research into the effectiveness of certain kinds of managerial behaviors.

In a nutshell, the authors of the study (titled "Testing the Leadership Pipeline")--Robert B. Kaiser, S. Bartholomew Craig, Darren Overfield (all of Kaplan DeVries Inc.) and Preston Yarborough of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro)--have researched and identified the leadership skills and styles that are most likely to be effective for "executive," "middle management," and "supervisory" leaders. It turns out, in a latter-day echo of the Peter Principle, that the most effective behaviors at each level are quite different; the Korn/Ferry summary even has a nifty graphic to illustrate this that only my respect for copyright laws prevents me from inserting into this post.

In all the reading and work I have done on school change, I have been struck over the years by what I have come to call "The Department Heads Problem," the tendency of many school administrators to lay at the door of department chairs at least some of the responsibility for foot-dragging that slows and sometimes stalls change initiatives. The summary, and the graphic, started me wondering. (See some earlier blog posts on this topic.)

In our schools we often regard department chairs as "middle managers," and so I wondered how the positive traits identified by Kaiser et al. played out in my anecdotal experience; they didn't, quite. So I sent Robert Kaiser an email asking just how he and the authors of the study would define middle management, in schools and in business.

I was pleased when Kaiser responded not just with a quick answer--middle managers are "responsible for managing other managers...most functional heads are considered middle managers, too"--but also with a copy of the full study, which has kept me busy, and I have to say enthralled, for a day now.

By the definitions Kaiser et al. have drawn from the literature and set forth in the full study, "middle managers" in independent schools are NOT department chairs but rather virtually all members of what schools regard as their administrative teams or cabinets. The only real "executive" in most schools is the head of school, responsible to the board and the key player in enunciating and setting in motion implementation efforts for strategic plans. While a few schools may have associate heads or other "senior administrators" who function at an executive level, in most smaller schools even assistant heads are essentially middle managers, charged with oversight of either important school functions (finance and operations, admissions, development) or the leadership of academic divisions.

Department heads, in this schema, are "supervisors," not middle managers. Interestingly, the behavioral qualities associated with effectiveness at this level are "Learning Agility" and "Work-Life Balance." Predictably, "Abrasiveness" is highly correlated with non-effectiveness, but so is--get this--"Supportive Leadership." By the terms of "Testing the Leadership Pipeline," effective supervisors--department heads, mostly--are characterized by quickness of apprehension and the ability to compartmentalize work and personal life. Somewhat strangely, "Directive Leadership," "Empowering Leadership," and "Lack of Follow-Through" are neutral factors.

Schools are human places, where we put huge emphasis on such qualities as supportiveness and "empowering" others--these are the things that we like to think we are best at. And yet, for the hundreds of supervisors in both for-profit and non-profit organizations studied by Kaiser and his team, these things don't much matter at what in schools is the analogous level, except insofar as supportiveness actually interferes with effectiveness. One imagines that many department heads, newly risen from the faculty ranks, might easily err on the side of being supportive of department members when a more matter-of-fact, nearly directive style is called for.

Empowering Leadership and (whew!) Abrasiveness are the negative factors for effective middle managers, but Supportive Leadership joins Directive Leadership and Learning Agility as positive factors; Lack of Follow-Through and Work-Life Balance are neutral. This made a whole lot of sense to me as I shifted my definition of middle manager upward to the administrators I have known and the work we are asked to do in schools. But being a directive leader can be a tough transition for a teacher-leader in whose world the gentle, supportive cajole is often the most effective tactic.

At the executive, or head of school level, Empowering Leadership--effective delegation--becomes a key skill, but Learning Agility is paramount, more important than for middle managers or supervisors. Directive Leadership (one thinks perhaps of micromanagement), Work-Life Balance, and (finally!) Lack of Follow-Through are strong negatives. Supportive Leadership and Abrasiveness are neutrals.

Much of the point of "Testing the Leadership Pipeline" is about the challenges leaders face when making transitions from level to level, and the simple schematic makes it easy to see what these might be.

For schools, in particular, the paper speaks to the importance of making careful choices when hiring or promoting, at every level. While the literature cited suggests a failure rate of about half of executive appointments, the failure levels at middle managerial and supervisory levels are not insignificant. How schools prepare staff for upward transitions is critical not just to the success of the individual but, of course, to the overall success of the institution.

I would strongly urge anyone involved with hiring and orienting department heads, school administrators, and heads to check out the summary and to seek out the finished paper when it is published. In it lies considerable wisdom, backed by extensive research, and a tremendous resource for independent school management as a whole. The premises and points could drive a whole new approach to recruiting and training school leaders.

I want to underscore that the point of the paper is not just about filtering or screening people, rejecting some and advancing others based only on personality traits. The big idea is that people can be helped to grow in known and necessary ways in order to be successful.

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