Perspectives: Jackson Nickerson


Jackson Nickerson, Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy and associate dean in the Olin Business School.

With a message today’s management gurus embrace, Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” But despite the necessity of organizational change, managing for a successful outcome is as tricky as harnessing electricity via kite.

“There are many books on leading change; every consulting firm has a practice on leading change,” says Jackson Nickerson, PhD. “But when efforts to lead change fail 60 to 90 percent of the time, then something is not working.”

Nickerson’s latest book, Leading Change From the Middle: A Practical Guide to Building Extraordinary Capabilities (forthcoming in April 2014 from Brookings Institution Press), addresses the gap between the desire for change and the ability to pull it off with academic research and practical advice for implementation. “The point of the series is to convert the ‘know why’ into the ‘know how,’” says Nickerson, who is also director of Brookings Executive Education in the Olin Business School and a Brookings non-resident senior scholar in governance studies.

Here, he shares his thoughts on mid-level leaders, ­strategies for change and success.

1. I wrote about mid-level leaders because they often are the ones in the hot seat. While much of the change-management literature focuses on those at the apex of an organization, a lot of change efforts, especially around building new capabilities, are ­undertaken by those sandwiched in the middle, and there is very little ­research to guide them.

2. If you are a mid-level ­leader, then you are at the crossroads of change, surrounded by four kinds of stakeholders.Above are your superordinates, from whom you must find out how far you can go before you lose their support. Below you are subordinates with whom you must find a way to engage so they feel empowered. With internal and external customers you must help them understand that the new ­capability you’re creating adds more value than it costs them to use it. Finally, you must find ways to gain support from complementors and potential blockers, those people who are gatekeepers to resources vital to building the new capability. ­Leading each stakeholder group requires ­different strategies.

3. Success in building ­capabilities is simply getting them up and running without complaints the first time. That’s extraordinary.