September 24, 2009

Keys to Successful Leadership in Difficult Times

Ever since the downturn in the economic environment last fall, business leadership experts have been working on not only “What went wrong?” but also “What needs to happen now?” Leadership as usual is no longer leadership as usual, as people and companies are changing the way they look at opportunities and problems, in order to succeed in a changing work paradigm. Fortunately, the research and digging have been producing answers which can be very helpful. Many companies are not only surviving, but turning around. They are applying solutions which are meaningful and which are creating observable gains. So below are some of the keys to what the winners are doing these days, and how you can apply the changes that will help you succeed.

Add a “life team” to your “technical team.”
Relationships are key during this environment. Leaders need people around them to help them think through issues and come to solutions. However, it is common for leaders to weight more heavily on those who assist them in the technical arenas of work: finance, decision-making, marketing, change management and strategy, for example. While these aspects are critical, leaders also need people around them just to support them as a person. The “life team” provides a sounding board for knotty problems, a place to unload troublesome stress and negative emotions, and a safe environment to talk about deeper issues and concerns. Having individuals around in a structured relationship or group which meets regularly can have a significantly measurable effect on performance and outcomes for the leader. Recruit a few safe people who are good listeners and who have sound judgment. Ask them to meet with you at least weekly for this period, until conditions stabilize. Don't get caught in the Lone Ranger syndrome, trying to face things all alone. It isn't good for you and it doesn't work. My book Leadership Beyond Reason provides more detailed information on the power of relationships for the leader.

Separate yourself from the problem. The issues you are facing may be mild, moderate or severe. They may range from anything to drops in sales to market share shifts. Whatever you are facing, it is important to understand that while you have a problem, you are more than the problem. That is, the problem has limits and parameters that define it. It may be bad, but it is not Armageddon. You have resources, strengths, people, and other things going for you that can either help you tackle it, or simply can remind you that you have a life outside the problem. This stance helps with catastrophic thinking, a sort of black-and-white attitude that can create anxiety and panic, and can immobilize the decision-making capacities a leader needs. Take a step back and deal with the issues from a more detached and objective position. A good habit is to write down the issue, and also the limits of the issue. For example, “We are x% down in revenues.” Add to that, “we have the following things going for us.” The problem is not a virus, poisoning the company's blood stream and every aspect of its parts. It has limits and you need to be aware of those limits.

Take action on what you can control. Leaders who win are able to sift through those aspects that they have no control over, and those they do. They don't spend a lot of creative energy on the first, and they do on the second. It isn't productive to obsess on global tectonic changes and a parent company's internal wars, for example. There is more return on investment when you figure out what you can do, and execute diligently. This helps you avoid what is called in psychology, learned helplessness, which is a tendency to believe you have no options, and so you allow the company to act on you, rather than you acting on your company. Write down those things that you can truly have control over. A few examples would be how I use my time and my energy; which key people I invest myself in, and what company resources I can access and use strategically.

Think in terms of trends, rather than instant results. Leading in difficult times takes patience and perseverance. You are in for the long haul, and you will need to restrain the urge to look for some solution to turn things around yesterday. Focus instead on creating trend shifts which will pay off over time. A positive pattern is much more significant than a positive event. I worked with a client whose company was in the red, and getting worse. However, he buckled down and paid attention to trends. It was a little ironic when he was encouraged at one point, because the downward trend in sales, while still downward, was less steep! But his attitude eventually turned things toward a truly positive trend.

These are interesting days. Be the winner who does more than the same thing, over and over again, expecting a different result. That is the definition of insanity, and it will fail you. Instead, think and act in ways that will produce the results you need.

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