American resolve is on full display in this COVID-19 crisis. You are practicing physical distancing, you are more socially engaged than ever though virtual platforms, and your humanness is emerging quite nicely. In fact, humanness is emerging across communities, cities, and the country, if not the world. We are seeing innovative ways to care for others, educate, and engage people. We are seeing rays of hope and glimmers of unity, where what matters is taking care of each other.
Custodial staff, grocers, big box and general retailers, and delivery services are but a few of those we may have taken for granted previously. Now, along with first responders and medical professionals, they are part of the critical path to survival. As families and individuals, we are adapting to new routines. It is not easy, and sadly there have been tragedies along the way, but we are resilient people. We will survive this event. That is what Americans do—overcome adversity, adapt, and prosper.
This crisis is putting tremendous demands on executives too. Prioritizing tasks and time can be overwhelming. Add in the complexities of a distributed workforce and the uncertainty of when and how we will pivot to a new normal, and you might feel like you are always firefighting. Do not get too focused on those fires. Like gardeners, leaders should ideally be looking to identify the new normal and find opportunities for growth, in addition to managing fires.
Ask yourself, are you working in your business, where you are likely serving customers, solving problems, making decisions, and perhaps experiencing online fatigue? Or are you working on your business to build or refine a strategy, develop or strengthen your organizational culture, and emphasize personal and team development? Engaging your middle management is a practical way to help you raise your gaze, spend time in the garden working on your business, and prepare for the new normal.
Strengthen Your Core, Engage Your Middle Management
If you want to get the pulse on your business, ask the middle managers—the heart and soul, the core of your company. Those managers straddle the strategic and tactical levels of an organization, oscillate their thinking to please up as well as down, manage a finite set of resources, and are responsible for day-to-day operations more than any other manager or leader. More importantly, they are the critical link to employee recruiting and retention, and, ultimately, to mission or project success.
Ask yourself the following:
- How are you taking care of your middle management, your core?
- Are their thoughts and ideas vital to the success of your business?
- How are you engaging them to leverage their experience?
As COVID-19 has shut down schools and workplaces, I have witnessed real-world examples of how a CEO can engage their core. I listened to one CEO in the telecommunications industry as he tried to contend with increasing demand, service performance to existing customers, and network capacity. Several ideas on how to manage that increasing demand started floating amongst his staff. Senior leaders were also bouncing ideas off their teams. And they found a solution, or so they thought: the problem was more significant than expected, and while the first solution was helpful, it was a Band-Aid.
The CEO scheduled a virtual meeting with his core, where he described the challenge. I listened to the back-and-forth between the participants as they reframed the problem and tested solutions. In one instance, the core made the CEO aware of the risks and implications of a particular solution, which he would not have known about otherwise. The session ended with a clearly understood problem statement and a three-phase solution with buy-in across the senior and middle management. The core could now coach their teams on execution.
Shifting from Firefighting to Gardening
This engagement was not an all-hands effort; it was an interaction. Participants asked open-ended questions, which is a great way to get connected. While the problem was a firefighting activity, its outcome was gardening: in addition to a solution, this core engagement also resulted in an enduring sense of humanness. The leader was open, vulnerable, empathetic, and honest. As the meeting continued, others followed his example of humanness, and the trust meter reached new heights. The CEO strengthened his organizational culture and is continuing these sessions to get through this crisis and beyond. As their new normal takes shape, he will be able to blend the intentions of top leaders with the knowledge and experiences of frontline employees.
Spend time in your garden cultivating habits, values, and the new normal with the core of your organization. Remember, your core has the most direct and recent experience, and with their involvement comes ownership that can lead to influence across your teams. Leverage the trust, connection, and collaboration you have generated, and then let your core coach their teams.
The best leaders recognize that the best ideas do not always come from the top. Carving out time and space for you to engage your middle management is a low-cost and secure investment—with a high payoff. Get them involved in your gardening. Stay well, healthy, and safe!
Jeff Marquez, founder of Marquez Leadership, Culture & Strategy, LLC, helps business, government, and nonprofit leaders and teams create a sustainable culture of excellence. A retired Army officer and former senior executive with the federal government, he served on the National Security Council as the director of continuity policy and acting senior director for response policy. He led the team that developed the successful US drawdown from Iraq in 2011. In Hawaii, he led the transformation of United States Army forces in the Pacific. He also served as a chief of staff in the federal government. He has led continuity and infectious disease planning actions across the last two administrations. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703)472-7514, https://strategicleadersacademy.com/jeff-marquez/.