corner office-Monster in the Closet-November 2011
It’s that time of the year when business leaders decide whether they are going to pull out all the stops to achieve their business plan goals, or flush the year as a loser and start sandbagging for what they hope will be a better next year. If you spend any time reading business journals or listening to business analysts, you are probably filled with anxiety about the uncertain future. Will unemployment numbers go down soon? When will consumer confidence rebound? Is there any hope for meaningful jobs creation programs to come out of Washington, D.C.? Are we headed back into a recession?
However, some business leaders will use that anxiety to drive creativity and enhance engagement in the company’s mission and strategies. This is a less-traveled path involving deliberately changing your attitude, but the rewards are great. Many investors, owners, shareholders, and employees look forward to hearing about the companies that have made this choice and finished the year strong.
According to a Clayton Christensen and Michael Overdorf’s “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” in the March 2000 issue of Harvard Business Review, good managers are skilled in assessing not just people but also the abilities and disabilities of their organization. Successful companies are those that can get their resources, processes, and values working together in the right direction—whether for sustained growth or a disrupting change. It’s not so much about the size of a company’s physical assets as it is about the power of their ideas. Think about General Motors versus Toyota or Microsoft versus Apple. The companies with game-changing ideas, disruptive technologies, and bold tactics are succeeding, while those relying on successes of the past are not. It’s all about the attitude that the company’s leaders have about the future.
Rein in the Fear
If fear about an uncertain future has taken hold of you, your management team, or your organization, acknowledge it and face it head on. Nothing is going to change in your corporate value system until you know what it is that you are wrestling with.
But instead of allowing that fear to live like a monster in the closet, take control of it and stand up to it. Too many business leaders mistakenly think their job is to predict the future, rather than to manage for it. Enlightened leaders talk openly about the anxiety of an uncertain future with their management team and employees, and then turn those conversations into productive ideas about how they are going to overcome the monster in the closet.
Left unchecked, fear can be paralyzing for an organization. Fear is distracting and can cause bad decisions. When business leaders allow fear to push an organization one direction and then another, it’s easy to lose your focus on what’s mission critical. The club in your hand for hitting the monster over the head is your attitude and leadership. Keep reminding everyone about the short list of goals that must be accomplished this quarter to end the year strong and provide momentum going into 2012. Ask your teams how best to achieve these goals and get their commitment to them. Don’t let fear extinguish the fire of creativity and engagement—use it as the fuel.
Along with your short list of goals, make conscious decisions about projects that you won’t do. Despite the infinite possibilities of new initiatives, it’s critical not to get tangled up in the unnecessary and unproductive.
Communicate More Effectively
Fear has many dangerous byproducts, including miscommunication, gossip, and false rumors. When a business leader does not display a strong sense of direction, employees begin to speculate about what is going to happen. I could write volumes about the untrue stories I’ve heard from employees in troubled companies—ones they’ve heard in the lunchroom about what’s supposedly happening in the boardroom.
Even if your company’s financial results are acceptable, the overall economic situation is causing employees and managers to worry about their jobs. It’s never been more important to communicate your company’s strategies and near-term outlook in the most effective way possible. That means describing in detail the realities of what’s happening with your customers and markets, how your strategies fit into that picture, and how their jobs fit into the company’s strategies.
Too many times, CEOs are not “real” in their communications—they talk to their manufacturing workers like they just completed a Harvard MBA, for goodness sake! Develop the habit of communicating with employees at all levels in your organization. Also, build a team of employees at every level to be your “ambassadors,” responsible for reinforcing your message. Remember that employees are much more likely to believe a message when they hear it again and again from their peers.
Lead by Example
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Do unexpected and surprising things that demonstrate that you are not allowing the monster of fear and anxiety to lead you, but that you are actively choosing to be creative, engaged, and committed to finishing the year strong. What you do will speak much louder than what you say. Allow your management team and employees to see the “real” leader that you are. And consider investing in your employees for achieving your year-end goals to show them how important they are to you and to your company’s success.
In short, you can hear and read all the bad news about the economy and react by allowing fear and uncertainty to take over. That is a certain path to poor results. Or, you can turn fear into a catalyst for developing creative and engaged employees. The decision is yours: Will you let the monster win?