Are you a CxO? Try staying on the bench more often

Don’t turn your middle-management into a monkey group.


Marcos Gonçalves

3 years ago | 5 min read

Big companies thrive or fail based on the quality of their middle management. By “management”, I don’t mean the classical & hierarchical structures but a more holistic view of people harnessed with enough soft and hard skills to bring leadership, guidance, competence to do/support well-educated decisions.

Once, Simon Sinek mentioned,

“Middle-management group has the hardest job of them all. They need to translate on what happens on Board level — strategical thinking — to what happens on the ground — tactical thinking.
(…) One of the reasons for things to break under middle-management level: we don’t train people to lead. (..)

Let that sink in for a moment. When someone leaves the general workforce and gets a promotion to a decision-making role, does the company invest in complementary skills like effective communication, leadership mindset, listening, empathy, etc.? If not a promotion, do such skills gain relevance while assessing a job card in a hiring pipeline?

Even with Agile revolutions and holacracy-based ecosystems, companies still lean towards a dissimulated (and pervasive) form of command & control.

They still build guilds, circles, or any other trendy name to describe a democratic look-a-like group for something they are not in their roots. The issue accentuates larger companies when the growth rhythm does not cope with the companies' weak decentralization strategies.

Full-circle back to the middle-management topic, this is a dangerous mix:

  • On the one hand, you may have under-qualified people in decision-making positions; and
  • On the other hand, your working model could be coupled to a disguised “command & control” ecosystem;

If you hit check on both, you will have top management worried about everything that happens below them, outranking middle-management for the sake of micro-management, hoping to make better decisions than the ones they hired them for…

This creates a snowball effect on middle-management people, which see these interferences as a bypass on influence and authority, putting them on the shelf and not being actively involved in the solution-making process.

If you are a CxO, how do you avoid your organization entering a negative spiral of ill-decision making? Two strong principles:

#1: Hire people that outsmart you

Like Steve Jobs once said:

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Why you should do it: Don’t feel uncomfortable if someone has a better view than you on a given topic. Understand the diversity of thinking is key for growth.

If you hired someone you saw fit at the time, give them space to grow and put into practice the “positives” you observed during the hiring phase. Remember: you are not a leader in creating followers; you are a leader in creating other leaders.

Why are you not doing it yet: Probably feeling inferior or afraid of losing power. You largely invested in your career progression to get that CxO position (personally and professionally), which was built under old society standards:

  • The leader is not afraid;
  • The leader knows exactly where/how to lead others;
  • The leader never has doubts;

This may create the “God Mode”-like CxO. But the God complex is quickly shattered when you acknowledge your human flaws (like everyone else) and understand you cannot intelligently manage all situations; sometimes, someone better fit can do it for you.

When that happens, don’t be afraid; embrace it. You're not losing your magic just by bringing someone else into the spotlight.

#2: Trust them to do the work

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, replied like this on “how much success can a talented player create?”

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

He understood what it takes to be “in the game” for the long-run. Talent alone can unblock tough challenges but would never surpass the discipline, routines, perseverance and creativity one team can achieve to conquer a championship.

Why you should do it: You are a talented CxO who is used to have an outstanding mark on everything you do. You are used to “walk the walk” based on what you say. You think you are a natural born-leader, equipped with great management skills, who is assertive and value-driven on all decisions you make. But… you are still human.

There will be days when you are not on top of your game due to a bad night’s sleep, a personal issue, a stressful moment. When that comes, you should rely on your next-in-line management/leadership structures: they are also equipped to handle challenges and they are eager to have an opportunity to prove their value.

The 1st thing you need is to believe in them: build empowerment and a safety net for them to step into the game. If they do great, trust more. If they don’t, teach them how to do it. Either way, create the conditions for them to feel they are in a movie like “Moneyball” and not so much in “Gru & the Minions”…

Why are you not doing it yet: Some say micro-management; I called it “need for surveillance”. Across the years, I’ve witnessed several CxOs publicly demonstrating support for their middle-management but as soon as they have the opportunity, they would put together a sophisticated surveillance mechanism to get the latest low-level details on a given project.

Intrinsically, they believe their people can make it but they don’t resist the urge to give their opinion or enforce a given direction (and we know how CxO opinion is seen as a call for action…). When the company scales and it’s impossible to check everything top-bottom, CxOs miss key information to decide, creating frustration on the next-in-line who should make a decision but gets outranked.

Commanding Officer David Marquet amazingly described in his book “Turn the Ship Around”, the strategy to enable a leader-leader culture in Santa Fé’s nuclear submarine. He brainstormed who may be his early-adopters to create such a disruptive change onboard. While assessing his options, he concluded:

  • If you start with the Top Management, you “ would be using a top-down approach to implement a bottom-up leadership philosophy. That was inherently contradictory.”
  • If you start with the junior people, there would be “too much distance between them and the Officer in Charge, and without support in the rest of the command chain, they would be viewed suspiciously.”

So David started with the submarine’s middle-management: the Chiefs. They were the ones with “eyeball accountability”, physically close to all actions performed and with enough information about what was going on the ensure excellence in execution.

After having their buy-in, it would be easier to perform any other change across the submarine’s crew. In today’s business world, the process is similar: if you are a successful CxO and you want to continue like that, assume your middle-management people are intelligent, well equipped with emotional & intellectual traits and also autonomous & accountable to make a decision and make it through.

Remember: alone you will go faster, together you will go further.


Created by

Marcos Gonçalves







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