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How Middle Managers Can Shine in the Midst of a Crisis

In times of upheaval, middle managers are on the front lines. They see what’s happening on the ground with customers, suppliers, and partners and are often better equipped to spot opportunities.

In a recent fireside chat, Soledad O’Brien, the award-winning journalist and producer, told Salesforce CMO Stephanie Buscemi that in times of crisis, opportunities emerge in every organization for true leaders to rise to the occasion.

“People in the workplace want a chance to lead, even in a pandemic,” she said. “Giving people the chance to run something is quite a big vote of confidence. And you need them — so it works both ways.”

But how, exactly, can middle managers — those outside the senior executive ranks — be heard in these critical times? We drilled into this question with Amy Wilkinson, CEO and founder of innovation firm Ingenuity, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and author of “The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs.

As impressive as those qualifications are, it’s what she has done in the last decade. In a previous career, she was a White House Fellow and Special Assistant to the United States Trade Representative.

Wilkinson has spent years studying what makes companies and entrepreneurs successful, through booms, busts, and everything in between. Here are her three key recommendations now for middle managers, and those who employ them:  

1. Find the gap

Middle managers are typically on the front lines, particularly in times of upheaval. They clearly see what’s happening on the ground with customers, suppliers, and partners and are often better equipped to spot opportunities. “These folks are circulating in the problem zone, so they know what’s needed,” Wilkinson says.

A few examples of COVID-19 related gaps companies have filled: big data firm Palantir’s work with the U.S. CDC and the U.K. NHS on coronavirus-tracking software based on its data gathering and visualization platform; cosmetics giant L’Oreal’s product pivot at its North American plants to fill the enormous demand for hand sanitizer; tee-shirt and underwear producer HanesBrands move to convert factories to make face masks; and apparel brand Jockey International now manufactures critically-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) in the form of Tier 3 isolation gowns.

Senior executives didn’t come up with these significant company pivots in a vacuum. As Wilkinson notes, nobody has a monopoly on great ideas, and nobody can solve a problem alone, especially in times of turbulence. Right now, it’s all hands on deck. “But if you can tap into other people’s points of view, and you can build on other people’s ideas quickly, that’s how you can solve problems you haven’t solved before.”

2. Repurpose existing ideas

Often, great ideas for products or services are not new. It’s the application that’s new. “Anyone in the organization can look for and recognize something in one department that can be applied somewhere else. It’s the cross-fertilization of ideas,” says Wilkinson, who describes this as “being a sunbird” in reference to birds that pick up something from one area and drop it in another. She stresses that these ideas can come from anywhere, including anything in your personal life, not necessarily from inside the organization. “It’s about lift and shift, import and export, and putting a new lens on something.”

This is happening left and right in the COVID-19 context. For example, sportswear retailer Fanatics repurposed manufacturing facilities making pro baseball jerseys to create masks and gowns for medical workers. Ice hockey equipment maker Bauer Hockey converted factories to produce face shields for healthcare workers, and sporting goods empire Decathlon remade snorkeling masks into respirators.  

3. Make an offer

One of the best ways for middle managers to make an impact is to make an offer or bring an idea, to their boss. “Instead of saying ‘I need guidance or I can’t handle this task’ you can say ‘I see a need for us to do XYZ,’ and I have a proposal or possible solution to share,” says Wilkinson. “That is a great way to get leaders’ attention, and it turns the power dynamic.”

The offer, she says, may be a game-changer for the organization the boss didn’t realize they needed and can take pressure off stressed-out senior leaders. On the flip side, it can be as simple as offering to send questions in advance to a collaborator or to get on a call at 8 p.m. 

Wilkinson adds that this is effective even if the offer never gains traction. “There’s no harm, no foul,” she says. “It’s a positive intention, and people are going to notice that.”

Of course, implicit in several points above is senior leaders need to foster an entrepreneurial culture that empowers middle managers (and in fact the entire organization) to ideate and execute new ideas. Now, in an unprecedented time of upheaval for business, it is time for all of us to step up.

To get more tips on navigating change, read other articles in our Leading Through Change series. Find thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis.

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