At a recent board meeting, I sat around the table with the other corporate directors listening to a series of management presentations. They stood before us with slumped shoulders and stressed expressions on tired faces. The economic conditions hanging like heavy yokes around their necks, I could sense they felt the future would bring nothing but gloom and a premature end to their bright careers.
It was like they were trying to peer into a shadowy basement, armed with only a feeble flashlight and fading batteries—and then the batteries died completely, and they were alone in the terrifying gloom.
Well, I don’t have this grey hair for nothin’. I’ve been around long enough to have lived through and survived three economic recessions, and that’s enough experience to know in my heart of hearts that we’ll eventually get through this one, too.
That’s also enough experience to know that the most important behavior for business leaders in a crisis is to be the positive, energizing force that their companies so desperately need.
And that’s what I told those managers: to keep their spirits up, to not let all the negative news about the economy distract them, and to realize that the board supports them and believes they are doing a good job of managing during difficult times.
When the going gets tough, the tough don’t hang their heads, slouch their shoulders, and look like they just got hit by a freight train. Real leaders stick their necks out and see difficult situations as opportunities to refocus. Real leaders don’t look around for who or what they can blame—they see the positive qualities of the people around them. After all, these are the people who are going to pull together and do the hard work it’s going to take to recover. Real leaders understand that their attitudes and people skills have tremendous influence upon the future of their company. What these leaders do will speak so loudly that the employees will hardly hear what they have to say.
Be the Energizer Bunny
If you compare two similar companies, both experiencing similar challenges, both led by equally skilled leaders in operational and financial matters, I’d place my bet on the one with the leader who has the most positive and energizing leadership style. I’ve seen it myself: In a crisis, the most successful leaders bring out the best in other people, make others feel like they are important, communicate the company’s vision and strategy clearly, and focus on the possibilities instead of problems.
These are the types of people for whom you want to put in the extra effort, don’t you? It’s difficult enough to get out of bed every morning to face an uphill battle, but it’s easier if you have a positive person out front leading the charge, and people around you who are focused on working toward the common goal instead of groveling and complaining. You have to think of yourself as the Energizer Bunny—never stop banging your drum and never finish the fight.
Place Your Hope in Substance
But if you attempt to be the Energizer Bunny by relying on your own batteries, you’ll soon be drained. It’s not as simple as just being the company cheerleader. You have to have some substance behind your hope, energy, and positive messages. If you walk around with a fake smile on your face, employees will see right through that bull pucky, and soon rumors will fly about your need to check into the funny farm.
Your energy has to be grounded in issues of the heart: the big-picture issues you’ve written as your company’s values statements. Isn’t it easier to do your job if your goal is to delight your customers, instead of avoiding termination? Or to provide the best patient care available, instead of getting reprimanded for sloppy work? Think of happy Wal-Mart greeters working to “save people money so they can live better.”
Keep asking clarifying questions such as, “What are the most important things we should be doing in order to succeed?” and “Are we doing what we say we’re going to do in our long-range strategic plan?” And then don’t sweat the small stuff.
If you sense that your company is exhausted and overwhelmed, get under the hood and examine whether your structure and processes are working well together. If employees are overloaded with unnecessary bureaucracy, they will lose energy for doing a good job. Find new ways to help them be more productive.
Communicate the Bad and the Good
Other major demotivating forces during a time of crisis are rumors and misinformation. I’ve seen companies absolutely crippled by negative groupthink fueled by gossip. Let’s face it: This recession is forcing change onto people, most of whom fear change more than anything else. And fear makes people do things they usually wouldn’t do. Those behaviors include gossiping.
That’s why it’s so important to communicate to staff what’s going on, how the recession is affecting your business, and what you are changing to react to the new environment. Your company needs to have confidence that these changes and the resulting pain (if there are layoffs) will lead to something better in the end. You must explain the process for layoffs, if that’s the case, so that everyone understands there are fair rules to the game. And you must clearly explain why changes are necessary, so that your employees know with certainty that there are no other alternatives.
By the way, you need to communicate in person as much as possible and not through an e-mail or a memo. Your employees want to see you and see how confident you are about the company and its future. (But if you’re not, then send the stupid memo!)
The Right Stuff
Remember the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, about the early years of the U.S. space program? From Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier to the selection of the original crew of Mercury 7 astronauts, we learned that these American heroes were everyday, imperfect people who took amazing risks to achieve their dreams. They were simply made of the right stuff.
This economic recession is separating the wheat from the chaff to reveal which business leaders are made of the right stuff. It’s times like these that make heroes out of everyday, imperfect people. Leading in a crisis doesn’t build character; it defines it. If you want to be a real leader who is a positive, motivating force for your company, make sure you measure up to these qualities:
• Clearly express the direction of the company, even if the final result is not yet known and the news is bad;
• Communicate positive energy, calmness, and confidence grounded in substantive corporate principles and plans;
• Listen to ideas from everyone—from the mailroom to the boardroom;
• Execute the plan firmly and be flexible when necessary;
• Demonstrate that difficult decisions were made with fairness and consideration;
• Motivate demoralized employees by making them feel that they are important.
If the prevailing economic pre-dictions come true, we’re probably going to be battling this recession for quite some time. The Wall Street gyrations will expose those who have built houses of cards and leave the ones with substance standing.
I think that will be true of business leaders, too. When this is all said and done, the ones left standing will be the ones who proved to be beacons of light for their companies because they were made of the right stuff.