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A 12-Step Recovery Program to Break from the Pack—Step 11: Lead From the Middle

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You have a lot more power than you think you do. If your first name isn't "CEO," and you're somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, here are a few points to show how you can make break-from-the-pack change happen.

This article is excerpted from Break From the Pack: How to Compete in a Copycat Economy and is the eleventh in a twelve-part series.

"How can I do this stuff without getting fired?" That is a question I periodically hear when I chat with managers who are somewhere in the "middle" of the organization. Sometimes after I deliver a speech, someone will come up to me and say, "That was great stuff, but you don't know my company"—or boss, or business. "We need to shake things up in this company, but I'm not the CEO. How can I do all this great stuff without approval—or without getting canned?"

Peter Standish, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Warner Bros. Records, has little patience with the constraints that midlevel leaders feel as they contemplate effecting change in their organizations. "Unless you're CEO of the entire corporation," he says, "you're always in the middle of something. I am. I honestly don't know how many levels are above me or below me because it changes all the time. And I don't care. At the end of the day, whatever your level, you gotta make shit happen. You can lead and be a hero wherever you are."

I believe that you have a lot more power than you think you do. If your first name isn't "CEO," and you're somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, here are a few points to show how you can make break-from-the-pack change happen.

Don't Wait for Orders—Initiate Solutions

I meet with a lot of CEOs and senior executives, and I can absolutely assure you that with rare exceptions, they understand the realities of the Copycat Economy. They see huge payoffs in breaking from the pack, and they know they can't do it by sticking to the status quo.

To a person, executives tell me that they desperately need fresh ideas and initiatives from everyone. The big caveat is that they don't want people just to come up with a great idea (or a great complaint) and then toss it upstairs. They want their midlevel leaders to create solutions. They want people who will initiate due diligence to show that their great idea has economic and operational logic. They want people who will create a rough plan of action, form a team to get some preliminary data, fight for resources, and demonstrate that their ideas have merit. If you do these things as a middle manager, not only will you create value for your organization, but I can assure you that your career will zoom past that of your colleagues who simply wait for orders.

Focus on the Customer's Needs

One of your safest bets is to let the customer drive your imagination. Concentrate your creative juices on figuring out ways to make customers more delighted and more loyal. To demonstrate that your ideas, however radical, are good for the customer and thus for your company, find allies and sketch out some plans, projects, and pilots. Develop some rough standards, measurements, goals, and feedback loops. Then you can make a plausible argument that if the company actually carried out your customer-pleasing ideas, it would have good odds of decent margins and returns on investment.

Do It Without Asking

In one seminar I led, a group of executives from diverse industries agreed on one suggestion to middle managers: "If you're prepared to demonstrate that it's good for the customer and good for the company, then do it without asking." I've already discussed the "good for the customer" piece. Now consider the second half of the executives' suggestion. In my 20-plus years of consulting and researching this issue, I have found repeatedly that the most successful and rewarded middle managers are the ones who say, "If I haven't been explicitly told 'no,' I can do it." So they don't ask.

Think like a businessperson, not as an employee. Don't ask for permission to take action, and stop waiting for someone to give you permission. Working independently, develop big goals that will address some big gaps, and then start with small and meaningful steps toward your goals. Find fellow maniacs, grab the resources you need, and gather supportive data. On your own, you can continue to monitor your progress, using quick feedback to guide your next steps, and carefully building momentum.

Some initiatives might require approval from upstairs, especially if they involve big capital investments. But those are exceptions, and here's the rule: Working on behalf of customers and the company as a whole without explicit assent from on high is the core of leadership. Think about it: You're smart enough not to flagrantly blow up the entire system. If something is deadly wrong with your progress, you'll be stopped; most likely, you'll stop yourself. But why abort the entire process by asking for permission beforehand, when you know that there are always people in a bureaucracy who view their jobs as thwarting meaningful change? If you continually ask for formal blessing before making your move, you'll become enmeshed in a quagmire of politics and bureaucratic delay. Or worse, you'll perpetually have to deal with scared naysayers and uptight nitpickers.

Don't Let the Career Skeptics Get You Down

Don't even think of wasting your energy on career skeptics on staff who view you with horror or disdain. If you're ever challenged, explain your actions on sound business principles and then continue to act without asking for permission. Put the burden on someone else to explicitly order you to stop. More likely than not, you won't ever see those orders. Michael Abrashoff, who had a brilliant Navy career and captained what was called "the best damn ship in the Navy," told a group of us that one can respect a hierarchy without fearing it. How did he get away with all his "crazy" actions that boosted morale and battle readiness but went right against the grain of conventional military protocol? Often he just did it. Sometimes he would fire off a message to his superiors that read: "Unless otherwise directed, here is what I will be doing…." He told us he never got stopped, second-guessed, or even questioned.

Don't Give Up Even If They Want You To

If you do get orders to stop, don't automatically roll over and play dead. If you feel strongly about your cause, stay true to it. A few years ago, I caught up with Ken Olevson, whom I had written about in a prior book. He had moved on and was the head of a small division in a large, rigidly hierarchical corporation. Olevson calculated that a third of the division's customers were draining more resources than the income they provided. After a lot of discussion and analysis, Ken and his team concluded that the best course of action was to fire those customers, take the short-term hit on revenues, concentrate on providing better service to the remaining customers to avoid further price cuts, and build the business with augmented pricing and new customers whose values and goals "fit" with the division's.

Corporate went ballistic over this decision, and Olevson was told to cease and desist immediately. Instead, he flew to headquarters and fought his superiors with strategic logic, hard data, and sensible financial projections. In his view, the folks at corporate were simply wrong, and he was prepared to go to the mat on this issue. He won. So did his credibility and reputation within the company, especially when he turned out to be right.

Yes, you must prudently pick your battles, and, yes, there are times when you would be wise to beat a (temporary) retreat, but too many managers back down too fast. Don't wait for top management to get religion. Fight for your cause, and teach them the religion with results.

Bob Busch, a senior executive at power and energy company PSEG, told me the best management lesson he ever learned early in his career was about the importance of breaking out of his self-imposed straightjacket: "When I was a young manager," he recounted, "I was cautious. I always waited for my boss's directives. One day he came to me and said, 'What have I specifically told you that you can't do?' 'Uh, nothing,' I stammered. 'Exactly,' he responded. 'I hired you because I wanted your brains. Instead, you've built your own box around yourself. Climb out of it.'"

As middle managers, most of our fears of punishment and retribution are self-imposed. However, if you're in an organization that persistently smothers your efforts to initiate positive changes, if you're in an organization where your job and career are really and truly threatened if you make conscientious efforts to create new value for customers and shareholders, then you should admit that you're on a sinking ship and start polishing your resume. You're worth a lot more than that, and a lot of progressive, break-from-the-pack companies will appreciate you if your current one doesn't.

It is risky to break from the pack, especially if you're not the CEO. But as we've seen, the risk of standing still is greater—for your company and for you. I've seen too many well-meaning, risk-averse, conforming managers passed over for advancement, or even downsized, because the decision-makers didn't see what special value they were contributing. Such employees have trouble finding work elsewhere because their resumes don't suggest much other than that they took orders well.

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