Middle and middle-high management operates based on their priorities. These priorities are shaped mainly by the incentives they receive, and the mandates from top management.
Often some topics are important for the company. Top management may have even identified them. But this does not mean these topics are on the table for middle management. It may seem absurd, but this happens in large, well-run, companies.
I was confronted recently with one such case. We had an issue identified by top management. Yet, this issue was not a pain for middle management. The company had suffered this problem for years without considering it a priority. I made a proposal to these middle managers on how we may tackle it. Two things happened:
- I got a strong push back on one aspect of the solution that hit these middle management KPIs, and also, to be fair that created a cost for the company.
- I clearly sensed the topic was not urgent or painful for them, at all. They had no hunger at all for a solution. They would only find or agree to a solution if pushed to do so.
We will work on a final proposal that will avoid some of the aforementioned undesired features retaining other aspects that were not criticized.
But to me, one learning was that this topic could have been solved in two weeks if a top exec, a board member, would have asked something like: I give you 15 days to come with a reasonable solution to this. Unfortunately, the problem was and still is lingering for too long.
Therefore to me was apparent that is one key function of an executive: To identify the elephant in the room and demand a solution to it when nobody feels the pain to take it out of the room. Or to detect the less visible dangers that lure the enterprise, and request plans to address them.
In a sense, a top exec is like the lookout of a ship: the person that must see what the others do not notice or do not care about, and the one that requests a solution is agreed among the crew.
Rarely top execs should mandate the actual solution. They do not know the details well enough. But they must have an overall, far-reaching vision, and must have the determination to address the challenges, requesting the crew to act, either if these problems are visible and ignored, like the elephant, or invisible to the crew.