Leaders in various sectors and countries will have significant opportunities to distinguish themselves and their organisations
Too many organisations have gotten away from their core strengths and effective organizational practices during the recent economic prosperity
As we all know, the world has experienced a severe economic crisis over the past 18 months. While this crisis has been experienced in different ways in various parts of the world, it is clear that leaders in business, government and non-profit entities have had to carefully consider how to guide their organizations through this period. Global GNP has been severely impacted and in various western countries governments have committed unprecedented sums of money (relative to GNP) in an effort to create stimulus, repair their financial systems and help cushion the negative impact of substantial de-leveraging. In various emerging economies, GNP has been negatively impacted by a material drop in export demand. While there are some encouraging signs of improvement, the jury is still out regarding the ultimate impact and duration of this crisis.
Despite this negative backdrop, I believe this will be remembered as a period of enormous opportunity. Leaders in various sectors and countries will have significant opportunities to distinguish themselves and their organizations. The purpose of this article is to make four or five key suggestions to leaders as they work through this period. My hope is that a few of these suggestions will resonate with readers and spark ideas (and new questions) about how to manage during this challenging time.
Assume this “crisis” will last longer than expected — and prepare your organization accordingly. While I am optimistic about the future, I don’t know when this crisis will end and when conditions will improve. Certainly, the recent rally in world equity markets, credit markets and commodities markets is encouraging. My main reason for caution is the substantial amount of de-leveraging that must still take place in household and government sectors in various countries. This will take some extended time and as a result will cause the GNP growth to be somewhat more sluggish in the US and Europe than we would normally expect in a “recovery”. The US consumer, for example, may take substantial additional time to reduce their leverage and resume spending at a more aggressive pace.
As a manager, you should plan for the future aggressively but also prepare your organization for the downside. That means managing your balance sheet to insure you have sufficient funds to weather an extended downturn. It also means preparing your people mentally for a marathon (versus a sprint) and coaching them not to be discouraged if there are setbacks or this recovery takes longer than previous recoveries. I believe that this mindset leads to a longer term perspective and helps your employees be more resilient and potentially see more opportunities. It is critical to avoid wearing out yourself or your people as you manage through this — if your people are tired and discouraged, they are less likely to be effective and make the most of this situation.
Look at your business with a “clean sheet of paper”. This means stepping back and assessing your core competencies, the competitive landscape and how the world has changed. Given this, you should ask the question, “If I had to start this business/non-profit from scratch, is the strategy we would pursue, the people we would hire, the organization we would choose, the culture we would want in order to achieve our goals? Are these the right goals?” Too many organizations have gotten away from their core strengths and effective organizational practices during the recent economic prosperity. The current crisis provides a tremendous opportunity to reassess all of this in a way that can create dramatic improvements!
In my experience, one effective way to do this exercise is to take four or five of your outstanding rising stars and ask them to do this exercise and report back to you. Often, as the leader, you may be too emotionally attached to your current method of operating and can’t objectively see that you’ve gotten off track. This is a terrific way to engage future leaders and receive superb advice. In my experience, this exercise is critical and almost always leads to significant improvements.
Over-communicate with your people. I am a strong proponent of regularly communicating your vision/aspiration for the organization as well as the three to five priorities you believe are critical to achieving that vision. During periods of uncertainty, I would encourage you to dramatically increase the frequency and clarity of this communication. During periods of turmoil, people are confused fearful and wondering about the direction of your entity. They are thirsting to know what you are thinking. Unfortunately, during a crisis, some managers communicate less because they are naturally uncertain about the future. I counsel these executives to fight this tendency and aggressive meet with the troops to reinforce the organization’s vision, priorities and the three to five key things you want them to be doing! If there are uncertainties, tell them the facts and why you’re uncertain — they will understand. This is a time for the organization to be pulling in the same direction and employees to know exactly how they should be spending their time. They also need to understand actions you are taking and the rationale for those actions. This can only happen if you and your other leaders are actively communicating in person and with frequency.
This is a time for calm and forward looking leadership. This is not the time to be looking backward, blaming others for past mistakes and failing to take responsibility yourself. Many otherwise successful leaders make the mistake of distancing themselves from severe problems and/or pointing the finger at others. This approach is demoralizing and often paralyzing to an organization. Executives typically enhance their standing and credibility by taking ownership of problems, acting decisively to improve the situation and encouraging their people to look forward. They actively discourage finger pointing and, in fact, err on the side of shielding their people from blame by taking ownership themselves. This approach sends a powerful message to the organization and is typically very positive for the culture. People learn that they should focus on what to do NOW rather than wasting time debating who was at fault or trying to protect themselves from criticism. This approach often differentiates organizations that substantially improve versus those that are mired in politics while “fighting the last war”. You want to create an atmosphere where your people run TOWARD issues versus distancing themselves. In this regard, as a leader, you are the ultimate role model.
While this has been a very difficult time, I believe it is also a period of great opportunity. Those leaders that prepare their organizations for the downside, aggressively re-think their strategies and organizational approaches, over-communicate and are forward looking are likely to emerge from this crisis far stronger than they were two years ago. Your leadership approach will likely determine which path your organization follows. These suggestions are intended to help you and your organization excel and reach your potential during this period of opportunity.