I’ve found myself in a reflective state lately – despite the craziness of being in a new company and role, I like to leave time to just “think” – usually between gym sets or while commuting on the subway. As I am knee-deep in strategic planning for our next fiscal year and identifying opportunities for growth, whether that be with key partners or our recently announced acquisition, I like to look back on my prior experience to ensure I leverage my learnings and experience going forward.
My job, like so many, is easiest when fair weather is in the forecast. During the seasons my company is reaping a harvest of success, a lot of what I do entails sustaining the success and imagining the next big thing that will generate even more opportunity and revenue. Laser focused on the well-being of my team and team members, I lead by building esprit de corps and helping everyone buy into the business’ mission. When storms dominate the forecast, my leadership style shifts into crisis management mode.
Despite the recent correction in the various stock markets, most western economies have been on a run for the past few years. From corporate earnings to wage growth, the numbers point to broad economic health and additional prosperity in the near term. Of course, we all know what will eventually unfold; bubbles will burst, red will appear on earnings sheets, and if it gets bad enough, HR will start to issue those dreaded pink slips. Remember 2007/2008? Even the strongest businesses and the most durable economies succumb to the inevitable economic downturn. So, what does this mean for all corporate leaders running their businesses? In a word, leadership. When economic or other unanticipated turbulence approaches, corporate leaders must lead. Your clients, your team, your reputation and personal brand depend on what you do when the s**t’s hitting the fan. Leadership in times of crisis is exhausting, painful, and unequivocally vital work.
The Mission is Bigger than You
If you enjoy the view from the corner office, chances are your team places a lot of trust in you and has done so for some time. Your position in the larger corporate structure indicates that you produce, you inspire, and you empower your team to own the mission like you own the mission. When things are unraveling, the same folks who supported your rise to the top floor during the bullish years count on you to demonstrate the level of leadership that fueled the rise. Bottom line? If you are asking your team to endure some sacrifices on behalf of the business and its mission during the turbulence, you need to be the first to sacrifice. Leaders model the behavior they desire from their constituents. If you’re thinking about the nearest exit or a golden parachute when you’re confronting turbulence, your team will have no interest in helping the organization survive the challenge. Everyone loses.
Strong leaders are preparing for the lean times long before they arrive. Through relevant continuing education and effective strategic planning, leaders have an assortment of tools in the toolbox that can be deployed when the conditions warrant it. Leaders also recognize that they can’t fix everything. Surrounding themselves with a nimble team of professionals, leaders “know their people,” and recognize whose gifts can be tapped for the greater good of the organization when there’s turbulence.
Leaders also have a crisis plan in the file ready to be pulled and executed in a moment’s notice. If the CEO says cut spending by 10%, here’s what we’re cutting. If credit is on its way to a deep freeze, here’s how we handle cashflow. If there’s a natural disaster, here’s what we do for the families and here’s how we move forward. While there’s some morbidity connected with the preparation, your organization and team deserve your best efforts before and during the crisis.
Be Firm, Be Human
For many leaders, decisions that deeply impact the lives of constituents are the most difficult decisions to make. No one wants to deliver the news that pay cuts, or worse, layoffs, are at hand. But remember what I said about the mission of the business? The mission’s vitality is more important that the individual’s. It’s brutal but true. As the leader, you are often called to decide how to tighten the belt and who is directly impacted by the tightening decisions you make. I once had to personally manage six restructuring exercises over the course of two years because of various mergers and acquisitions; not a fun exercise, let alone six times over in such a short period. Use your head, not your heart when cuts are necessary. Whose talents are essential for our emergence from turbulence? Which losses can be absorbed by the team? Once you make the tough calls with your head, deliver the bad news from your heart. Be willing to listen to the anger, grief, and fear expressed by the team member. When you are targeted by the employee, don’t take it personally. And, by all means, offer the employee resources they can tap during this time of loss and transition. Indeed, this is part of your preparation.
Fairweather leadership is only once facet of the leadership portfolio. If you continue to climb skyward in the corporate ethos, you will be asked to lead when everything is threatened, that is, when the s**t’s hitting the fan. What you do during the turbulence – the crisis – says it all about your leadership acumen. Don’t run, don’t look out for number one, just lead.