Pandemic Perspectives: Furloughed Senior-Level Exec Becomes an Author

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Careers

Pandemic Perspectives

 Joyce Chan @ The Balance

The coronavirus pandemic has had an immense impact on the economy and workforce, as it has not only exacerbated a recession but led to nearly 55 million people in the U.S. filing for unemployment in just a 20-week span leading up to Aug. 1, 2020. 

Every unemployment filing, furlough, and closed business reflects a personal experience. As the statistics pile up, we’re committed to sharing stories of how COVID-19 continues to shape people’s lives and livelihoods—how they’ve coped, what they’ve learned during the crisis, and how they’re moving forward. 

As an innovation leader at diversified manufacturer Leggett & Platt, Detroit, Michigan-based Marguerite Johnson thrived on leading transformational innovation projects, scouting for technologies and partners, and developing new business. But like millions of others, the senior-level executive’s life and livelihood were upended by the pandemic, which resulted in massive furloughs at her company. 

While her furlough continues, Johnson has channeled her energy and ingenuity into multiple projects. Not only is she nearing completion of an Executive Management certification course through MIT, Johnson is also about to become a published author with a soon-to-be-released book on “Disruptive Innovation and Digital Transformation” and is launching a resourceful digital content platform that leverages and conveys her passion for the subject. As she keeps busy and navigates the pandemic, Johnson shares more on her projects, how the crisis has changed her perspective on employment, how her son’s virtual schooling opened her eyes, and more. Her answers have been edited for clarity and length. 

Marguerite Johnson
Marguerite Johnson. Photo courtesy of Marguerite Johnson. 

What happened once the pandemic hit?

When COVID-19 hit, we were notified that automotive was in a bit of a flux. GM, Ford, and most of the manufacturing facilities here shifted their gears to make ventilators and face shields. Leggett & Platt said hey, let's take a pause, let's pivot and see how we can help the country, and basically let's put our future on hold. And because I'm responsible for innovation, I help scout and observe what's happening and [going to happen] in the future. So my group was furloughed and I said to myself, this is a perfect time to write the book that I've always wanted to write. 

Did your furlough inspire this book, or did you have this idea in mind all along?

I always knew that I wanted to write a book and the topic of the book is disruptive innovation with digital transformation. Earlier this year, Clayton Christensen, the father of “disruptive innovation,” passed away. In 1997, he basically coined that term and Christiansen's definition covered existing markets and incumbent businesses. He identified this era where innovation and new entrants were changing the dynamics in the market and taking away market share from incumbent businesses. Well, that doesn't necessarily apply now. The destruction that we're experiencing is very much a combination between talent capabilities, technology, and competition.

So as innovators, we had to basically redefine what this disruption is that we're currently facing. And I was challenged by the fact that we didn't really have a good compass to use Christensen's original theory for what was happening in our space. So I said, well, I need to define what disruption is for “the now.” So I developed a new theory, a new model. I did tons of research and I wrote a book.

Going back to your job before you were furloughed, were there warning signs you were seeing? 

I would like to say we had some notice that we were pivoting. Not to get political at all, but this is about capabilities, and we didn't have the supply chain triggers that we needed. We didn't have a federal government saying this is what we need to make this. So people were a bit confused and scrambling. We had no kind of blueprint. If you think of this whole thing, it's kind of like a maestro in a symphony. We had no one saying more violins, less drums. So, there was a lot of confusion about how anyone was to get engaged. Because of that, a lot of employers couldn't even tell their employees what was happening because they didn't know. So I would have hoped that we would have been in a situation where we’re all playing from the same sheet of music, but it was not the case.

Though you've been furloughed, have you been job searching or more focused on the book at the moment? 

I have had a number of people reach out to me through LinkedIn. I think what a lot of really smart companies are doing is they're thinking, hey, there are people who probably could move right now and they’re reaching out to those folks and saying, you have a skill set that I need, and are you open to change? Although I haven't been proactively using the “Open to work” function on LinkedIn, I see that a lot of companies are looking to fill their pipeline with future business. They recognize that innovation is such that if [your business] has a strong portfolio, you could probably go maybe two years on that. Again, not assuming that anything like COVID-19 happens.

But if you don't have a pipeline and you don't know where your next innovation is coming from, those are the companies that are saying, Hey, I recognize that this virus is going to change a lot for my business. I think some smart companies are saying, we need to figure out what the next innovation is within the context of a pandemic, when you know that wasn't in our visioning. And others are saying, we're just going to keep our heads down and hope we'll survive. 

This pandemic has taught everybody how to adjust and figure things out. Besides writing, what have you done to deal with any anxiety or stress?

Gratefully, school's out, but I have an 11-year-old son who was going to school online. I did not know how much physical school impeded his learning until he started telling me about how much better it was that he didn't have to deal with the bullies, the social pressures. He saw such a contrast. I thought he would say, Oh, this is a bummer because I don't see my friends, but I was surprised.

I was telling him I'm happy that you're happy, but I had no idea it was that bad. For a while, I was working from home before I was furloughed. I have a daughter who's living with us who was also furloughed [at the time], so she was working from home. Our kitchen island turned into a hub station. It was like, put your headphones on when you're on a video conference because we're all here and in this space. And so, we adjusted to everybody being at home. My husband retired last year and he thought, you know, I'm going to be home and life is going to be good. And all these people will be gone in their respective corners [of life]. And now here we are, we're all back.

How did the virtual schooling go? 

Initially, the switch to virtual school was less than ideal. Like every school in the country, my son's middle school was knocked off its "A-game.” I recognized that intentions were good but delivery was lacking. Instead, I found concise "notebooks" on Amazon for middle school subjects: World History, Science, Math, and English—all from the same publisher. 

My son only took to the Math and Science books. These are his favorite subjects, but we ended up ordering books off of the suggested book list in the English notebook. He agreed to read some bios of historical figures instead of World History. He picked Stalin for his first bio. I was uncertain about this book, but my husband said to let him explore. My son reads aloud at the island while I cook, in case I need to head off any craziness. 

So, it was a little bit of an adjustment with everybody being home and dealing with some of the things I was not necessarily aware of with my son and school. But being an innovation lead, I guess I could say, I was one of the lucky ones because I didn't have to go to work in a pandemic. We could put the computer on and we can do our jobs. But you put yourself in other people's shoes, like doctors or janitorial staff at the restaurant that refused to close, and feel fortunate. 

What have you learned during this pandemic? Has it changed your perspective on your career? 

It has changed my perspective on what it means to be employed. And for me, what it means to be employed doesn't necessarily mean me being tethered to a company. It means having the ability to reset the scales based on my skill set and chart my own path. And so, employed for me doesn't necessarily mean I work for an employer. It could mean that I am doing innovation for a company with a certain set of my skills, but then I'm writing books. I'm doing speaker engagements. I am blogging. I am doing podcast interviews. I'm talking to you. So, you know, I’ve redefined what being employed means to me. 

There's a book that was written [in 2013] by a gentleman from Forrester called [Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation]. He talks about people being disruptors—specifically mercenary employees. These are employees who—based on the outcomes and outputs that they are able to create—will either attract employers for either a short period of time for a project, or to develop a business that has a defined life to it. It's solving a particular problem and then it dissolves. The relationship between employer and employee is already evolving. And I think this pandemic and a number of other breadcrumbs that have followed us to the future—mainly in the digital [space]—are [allowing] employees to basically re-monetize their skills and not necessarily rely on a paycheck being the sole [source of income] for their skills. I never considered myself a disruptor, but I will say that I'm evaluating consistently what it means to be employed. And it doesn't mean 100% of that pie needs to be occupied by an employer.

This pandemic has taught us all to reevaluate things. Besides the book launch, what do you look forward to? What does the future hold? 

Well, I am launching this book, so I want to make sure that I give it the due diligence that it requires. I'm also launching a platform called "TheNextish.com." It's a content platform on disruptive innovation and digital transformation. It breaks down these large capabilities into Digital, Networks, and Platforms.  

I'm adding content via digital channels—for now, only on YouTube and a subscription newsletter. I'll start populating that platform with content and hopefully drive enough people with like minds that we can start doing some of those mercenary things. We can come together and say, this is a defined problem and here are the people with the skill sets necessary to get it [solved]. Let's put a scope of work together. Let's get out there and get the funds that we need to solve this particular problem. Let's do entrepreneur workshops so we can bring up our small businesses. We have a whole bunch of small businesses that will have their entire revenue wiped out. Those companies weren't prepared for a digital world where you had contactless transactions and curation of customers. And some of them couldn't even take a credit card over the phone. So we’ll be building these entrepreneurial workshops and engaging small businesses to say, you don't need to be the next Amazon, but you do need to adapt. 

One of the things I want to do is try to take everything that I know from being an innovation lead for almost 20 years and give [small businesses] the digestible parts they need, so they can get themselves in a better position to face digital transformation and digital disruption in the future.

In regards to your day job, do you plan to go back? What's your plan? Are you ready to go back?

I have been furloughed since April, 2020, and before the July 4 weekend, they said to us, we don't have a definitive time to bring back everyone. [As of now], everyone is working from home until the end of the year. There are no guarantees that I will return.

Want to share your Career Perspective? Tell us your story by emailing contact@thebalance.com.