Navigating crisis from the backseat? How top managers can support radical change initiatives by middle managers

Mariano L. M. Heyden*, Ralf Wilden, Chelsea Wise

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


We advance the premise that to navigate crisis, rather than reactively cutting costs by culling middle management, top managers can benefit from enabling radical change initiatives by middle managers. Contextualizing this idea to the marketing function and the COVID-19 crisis, we ask: How can Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) support marketing middle managers (MMMs) in initiating radical change in crisis situations? We take the position that marketing managers' distinctive functional influence on radical change is in driving product and service innovations that are new-to-the-firm. We then argue that crisis situations present an opportunity for top and middle managers to rethink assumptions about ‘who does what’ in radical change initiatives from the marketing function, focusing on the underemphasized possibility of MMMs initiating change and CMOs implementing. Building on recent findings on ‘change role reversal’, we unpack the notion that change initiatives may be most effective when middle managers initiate, while top managers implement. This unconventional change route would see CMOs taking a deliberate and supportive back seat in navigating crisis, while MMMs take the wheel in driving radical change initiatives. We identify duties and hurdles to a change role reversal— approach faced by MMMs throughout three stages of innovation-enabled radical change proposed by Burgelman (1991; variation-selection-retention) and chart corresponding roles that CMOs can play to support MMMs: advisor, judge, and guardian. Three tangible final questions addressed to CMOs guide managerial applications, while considerations outside scope are also discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)305-313
Number of pages9
JournalIndustrial Marketing Management
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2020


  • Change roles
  • Chief marketing officers
  • Crisis
  • Marketing middle managers
  • Organizational change
  • Radical innovation
  • Dynamic capabilities


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