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The Key to Change Is Middle Management

Posted on by Brandon Klein

At the inaugural meeting of a change transformation effort under way at a hospital in San Jose, California, nurse Michelle delaCalle faced a room full of people who were discouraged by the organization’s earlier attempts at change. She stood and shared a story of her own about how making people wait for hours in the emergency department seemed like a violation of her caregiving role. Her story seemed to move people. “I could feel my own intensity,” she said, and when she was done speaking, she could tell that people finally understood the need to change.

Change efforts often crumble into excruciatingly dull meetings and PowerPoint presentations. This hospital’s effort won’t, I believe, because of people like delaCalle. A mid-level manager in this 5,000-employee hospital, she is leading a 70-member group on patient flow as part of a larger organizational effort. Her ability to lead and inspire — to become a change leader from her position as a mid-level manager — is helping her team produce results. For instance, flow is improving: patients are moving from the emergency department to beds faster, and the number of patients discharged before 11:30 a.m. doubled from 20% to 40% between July and December 2013, and has stayed at that level since.

I studied large-scale change and innovation efforts in 56 randomly selected companies in the high-tech, retail, pharmaceutical, banking, automotive, insurance, energy, non-profit, and health care industries. My research found that the majority of the efforts failed. A hallmark of the successful 32% was the involvement of mid-level managers two or more levels below the CEO. In those cases, mid-level managers weren’t merely managing incremental change; they were leading it by working levers of power up, across and down in their organizations.

I recently took another look at my 553 hours of interviews with 380 executives, managers and contributors to see why some managers emerge as change leaders. I found a few defining characteristics: