Today, most CEOs come into the job with a vision and a winning game plan. They hold an executive offsite with the top team and come up with a game changing strategy. Everyone gets excited and signs off on the strategy, vowing to play 100 percent at making sure it gets executed. Then surprisingly, after 6 to 9 month, nothing has really happened and no one can figure out why.
The real problem is that in many organizations, despite great leadership from people at the top there is still in many cases a disconnect between authorities issuing directives and the middle management, and then again with the ground troops who are ready, able, and eager to carry it out.
In some Washington circles, this impervious middle section of government is jokingly referred to as “the clay layer,” the layer through which no light shall pass.
Resistant to change and adhering strictly to orthodoxies, even when nonsensical, people in the clay layer can halt progress. Despite their intentions and being in a strategic position, they often stop the progress being called for.
I have seen this phenomenon not only in government and the military, but in Fortune 500 companies, universities, and church organizations. It is a very serious impediment to change in most cases, and can sometimes cause the demise of the organization itself.
What to do about this layer of clay? For CEOs and people at the executive level, I suggest travelling around and talking about your vision to people at the coalface and then watching people’s response.
If people don’t respond to the bolt of lightning you are sending out, you can bet there is a problem with middle management. Be patient and draw people out until people start to open up and talk about the layer of clay, even in veiled terms: “Every time I show some initiative, I get hit over the head with a lead pipe.” Invite people to send you confidential emails expressing their thoughts and feelings.
The next step is to send a strong signal to the organization that managers who squash initiative won’t be tolerated. Send a signal to the organization that you are not kidding by taking a big problem and sweeping out a few middle managers whose behavior symbolizes the problem.
If you want to take it further, set up reverse performance reviews, as they do at Infosys where employees review their bosses and do so publically on message boards.
Finally, look in the mirror. Before you blame other people for being part of the layer of clay through which no light can pass, ask yourself if you are part of the problem or solution.