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The Deadly Lack of...

The Deadly Lack of Empowerment Trap

The Self Empowered Manager

Jeanne Bogre is marketing manager for Danly IEM, a Cleveland-based company that is the leading manufacturer of die sets, die-making supplies, and machine components for industries in North America. (Think about the people who make machines for factories. Danly IEM sells products to them.) Jeanne is in a challenging place. Not only is it a male-dominated industry (and, yes, Jeanne has had to deal with her share of sexist attitudes, usually veiled but no less powerful for that), but it’s also an industry in which quite a bit of outsourcing is going on, generating a lot of fear among rank-and-file employees about their jobs moving to Asia or Latin America.

Under the circumstances, many managers in The Middle would be paralyzed by uncertainty. What’s going to happen to our company? Will we pack up and move to Mexico or Singapore or Korea? If we don’t, will we end up losing our market to cheaper competitors from those lower-wage lands? If the answers to these questions are unclear, how do I motivate my people without lying to them? It’s one of those times when life in The Middle can be excruciating.

But Jeanne Bogre has found ways to turn the anxiety into opportunity. Rather than reacting to the outsourcing trend with denial (“I’m going to pretend this isn’t happening until they cart up my office supplies and ship them overseas”) or resistance (“I’m going to fight to keep every job in the USA no matter how much money we lose in the process”), Jeanne is saying, “Let’s recognize what’s happening and figure out how to make it work for us.” That includes finding the potential benefits of outsourcing both for her company and for herself, personally.

Jeanne’s ability to seize the outsourcing opportunity begins with an attitude of flexibility—a quality that distinguishes Jeanne from some others in her industry. “The guys in upper management obviously tend to be older than middle management,” she explains. “Most of them have families and strong domestic ties. So they don’t want to travel to the overseas venues where a lot of our business is starting to migrate.” Jeanne has no problem with traveling, and so she has volunteered for foreign assignments more senior managers shied away from. In the process, she has walked through doors that otherwise would have been closed to her.

“Let’s say I’m working on a project in Asia,” Jeanne says, “where a lot of factories that need our products are now being built. This is a brand-new market for us. That means I have a lot more flexibility to set standards and to create business practices than I would in our current market. If I wanted to change some system here in the States, everybody would want to know why. There’d be a lot of push-back. Not in a new market. I’ve found you’ve got much more room to grow as a manager if you’re willing to tackle a new project for your company. I was able to set up my own pricing structures and my own distribution networks in places like China and India because I was the expert on those markets—just because I was willing to go there and learn what made them tick.”

Now Jeanne is using her knowledge base to expand the parameters of Danly’s business.“More and more companies are looking to buy products like stampings, car fenders, hoods, whatever, in Asia. But they don’t know a lot about how the business works over there. That creates an opening for Danly. We’ve built up a lot of experience in Asia, and we have a guy running our joint venture in China who gives us more knowledge about manufacturing and distribution in China than the majority of people in our industry have. Why don’t we sell that knowledge as a service?”

Jeanne is leading Danly’s new effort to do just that. “We can help our customers with anything from locating products to finding companies that can manufacture stampings or toolings. We can help U.S. business people organize their trips to China, give them the key contacts they need, and coach them on how to negotiate successfully over there. And for each service we can charge a fee.”

Jeanne and her team are developing the profit model for this new service-based business right now. Its potential is enormous. The concept wouldn’t even exist if Jeanne Bogre—manager in The Middle—hadn’t grabbed the bull of outsourcing by the horns and asked, “How can I make this work for me?

Jeanne’s story illustrates the special capability of managers in The Middle to recognize business opportunities that top-level executives, more distant from the needs and problems of customers, may overlook. As management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter has said, “Because middle managers have their fingers on the pulse of operations, they can also conceive, suggest, and set in motion new ideas that top managers may not have thought of.” It’s the power of the fulcrum at its best.

This is an excerpt from the new business book, Ignited Managers Light up Your Company and Career for More Power, More Purpose, and More Success.

 Also by Vince Thompson, Bridging an Unbridgeable Gap at Work.