When you’re a middle leader struggling with the CEO’s strategy

I recently spoke to a middle manager who was struggling to help their team follow a new CEO’s strategy. And it got me thinking… how do you manage a team to success when they can clearly see the CEO is out of their depth and the strategy is not great? Do you go along with their strategy quietly and compliantly, or say something? 

It’s never been easy to be a middle manager… that feeling of being squeezed between the CEO and your team. But as society has become more individualised, people want to see their work as an expression of who they are. By being asked to comply with strategies they’re not keen on, middle managers have to go against what they believe in, and that can be really uncomfortable. 

In a situation like this, should a middle manager tell the CEO that the strategy isn’t great? Probably not. Especially not a new CEO. The chances of doing anything other than getting their back up are slim. 

Should a middle manager tell their team that they think the CEO’s strategy is bad? No! Because then it looks as though they’re backstabbing the CEO and are not ‘on message’. Neither of those are likely to lead to any long-term benefit at all. 

So perhaps a middle manager should just go along with the strategy even though they don’t like it. Again, this sounds awful. Their values are being compromised. And, they don’t want to stand by as the company crumbles around you.

Nothing is perfect. So what’s the best thing to do? 

The last option. A middle manager working for a new CEO is usually better to try to get on with it. This sounds pathetic, but it’s not. A middle manager who cares about the future of the company and wants to see it do well should give the CEO every chance to be successful. 

Undermining them at this stage will not help with this. So, unlike my usual perspective, here I advocate keeping quiet, acting in line with the CEO’s wishes and keeping everything crossed that it won’t be as much of a mess as it could be. 

Middle managers can make themselves feel more positive about this by looking for strong points of the strategy and really embracing those. And give some self-praise for being able to take the higher ground. This is also a great chance to get to know the CEO well to improve chances of being influential in the upcoming period and helping to shape the strategy in whatever minor or major way is possible right now. 

Resources to help:

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