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Organizational Change from the Middle


ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE, middle manager, org chartWhile most corporate decisions and edicts for change come from the top down, it is actually the organizational change initiated by middle managers that has the most significant and positive impact.

So if you are sitting in the middle of the pack in your company, yet have a strong desire to enact change, for example in the form of creating more opportunities for women in tech, you may just be in the “catbird” seat.

In a recent Forbes article entitled Why Middle Managers Rather Than Senior Executives Should Initiate Change, we learn of a study that examined organizational change from a variety of positions. The study examined change from four different factions:

  • Initiated and executed by top management
  • Initiated by top management but executed by middle management
  • Initiated by middle management but executed by top management
  • Initiated and executed by middle management

While the majority (almost 50%) of change came from the top it was in fact shown that middle management change was better executed.

Top management often frames change in purely strategic terms, while everyone else in the organisation tends to focus on what will actually happen in the context of their own jobs, how it will affect them in practice from the point when they walk through the door in the morning to the time when they head off home. Consequently, change initiated by middle managers almost always gains much better levels of employee buy-in and support.

In fact, while we strive for key leadership opportunities, we don’t have to wait for the VP title and the corner office to have a positive influence on the company. CBS did a segment several years ago that highlighted ten reasons why managing from the middle can be more valuable to the company. Here are just a couple:

  • You know how stuff really gets done. Let’s face it, process maps mean very little when you know that to get your PC up and running again, the fastest route is to buy a muffin for Oscar in IT.
  • You know what motivates individuals. You’re with them every day. Sometimes it’s cash, time off for a kid’s event, or just some simple recognition. Whatever the case, you’re in a position to help motivate both in- and extrinsically more than anyone else.
  • You have the skills to get people of diverse backgrounds and in cross functional groups to work together. That’s because you live with them every day. There’s a big difference between telling people what to do and really working it out. You know how to work it out.

Shelley Zalis, a Forbes contributor and CEO of The Female Quotient, which is in the business of gender equality, offers advice for how to manage from the middle – reporting up and leading down the organizational chart, in her article How to Succeed from the Messy Middle. 

Shelley offers advice on how to manage up:

“…we need to manage up by being proactive about the projects we’ve been assigned, steering our own workflow and getting to know our managers. By figuring out what is most meaningful to our managers—just as you’d want to uncover what matters most to your loved ones at home in order to create the best possible environment— we’ll know what it takes to be viewed as an indispensable employee and can proactively tailor our goals to better match what matters most to our managers. Take every chance you can to get face time with your boss and listen for insights into what really drives her.”

If you want to spearhead organizational change in your company, first look to your manager and how the change might impact them. Is there a way that you can position the change so that your manager will help you send the plan up the flag pole? If so, this is a great way to build on your relationship, make them look good to their immediate supervisor and also be the catalyst for change.

We have heard it said multiple times: it isn’t enough to talk about the need for change, we must take action. In fact, I just wrote about Mala Kumar and her charge to women in tech to make a difference, to help the leaders in their company seek out more diverse candidates. Pamela McCauley is another voice for women in STEM – don’t give up. If you don’t like your work environment then be the change you want to see.

Leading the conversation about the need to increase the number of women and candidates from diverse backgrounds is a great place to START, but now let’s follow it up with action. We don’t have to wait until we run the company to enact change. We can take action today, from our current position.


JJ DiGeronimo JJ DiGeronimo, a speaker, author and thought-leader for Women in Tech and Girls and STEM, empowers professional women and consults with senior executives on strategies to retain and attract Women in Technology to increase thought and leadership diversity within organizations.

Check out JJ’s new award winning book Accelerate Your Impact by downloading three free chapters.accelerate your impact