Consider the goals established by senior management. The CEO and his or her team often speak in terms of broad financial and strategic goals such as Return on Invested Capital, Market Share, Total Shareholder Return, and Asset Turnover. The language fits the audience that they must deal with most regularly: outside investors, Wall Street analysts, credit rating agencies, board members, and fellow members of the top management team.
Consider, though, the meaning of this language system to front-line employees. In many situations, they do not understand these goals clearly. How exactly do you calculate Asset Turnover, and what does it say about the health of the organization? Perhaps more worrisome, front-line workers may not care much about these objectives. It's hard to imagine a retail cashier or assembly line worker, such as my parents, eager to get to work in the morning to achieve a higher return on invested capital. What do they care about? How do they find meaning in their work? What motivates them? The middle manager must answer those questions, and they must translate those top-level financial and strategic goals into a set of concrete objectives that are meaningful and important to the front-line employees. Then, they must connect those objectives, and the work people are doing in pursuit of them, to the bigger picture. In so doing, middle managers help workers understand the role they play in helping the firm achieve its larger objectives.
At the same time, middle managers must listen carefully to their team members. They speak their own language about the work being done, the concerns of customers, and the problems with the firm's processes and systems. The middle managers must translate what they are hearing, so that they can communicate these issues clearly and concisely to top managers. The middle managers must ask themselves: How do these concerns or problems get in the way of achieving the firm's top level goals? What resources and management support do my employees need to make the improvements that they suggest? Top management may not understand these issues clearly, as they are so far removed from the work itself, and from the customers. By translating their team members' ideas and concerns appropriately, middle managers can achieve the type of alignment required the organization and its employees to thrive.