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Tough Times Leadership

All across the world, companies are facing the day of reckoning due to rising costs across the board. Actually, that day was a while back but it’s all catching up quick, fast, and in a hurry.

Two scenes capture this unfolding scenario….

As a result, many company boards, senior executive teams are experiencing a sobering up, a facing the music, smelling the coffee, or worse, have taken the head in the sand approach. Either way, the stress in the workplace has certainly gone up with predictable behaviors: Hard times drive some mean bosses over edge.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going: In the face of adversity try harder. But try harder to do what? You’re a manager/leader of others or of other (senior) managers and unlike the Titanic watchouts, you see coming up fast in the horizon the icebergs that will sink your ship. How you navigate through these times will be a defining moment – personally and professionally*.

As I wrote in a previous mindless meandering, management-by-walking-around is a key trait for successful managers. The key learning out of this in tough times is YOUR VISIBILITY to others. It’s important that remaining unflappable and resolute by being accessible helps immensely. If there’s nothing one can do during these times, using the 80-20 rule, do this one thing. Classic example of this kind of leadership is illustrated by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – a classic model of outstanding leadership.

Dennis Zeleny’s May 9th Management column from Forbes How To Lead In Tough Times provides good sound advice. He writes,

1. Communicate continually and honestly.
2. Hatch a plan based in reality.
3. Hang on to your best talent.
4. Act decisively.
5. Alter your perspective.

It’s basic because when you’re engaging in MBWA, it’s got to be real, authentic. Firstly, treat people like adults and don’t insult their intelligence. Honesty is a very good policy to adopt here. That obviously leads to the second point that acknowledging the facts, no sugar coating, will be easier to take than loads of baloney or worse, BS which seem to pile high and deep during tough economic times. Resist it and come clean. Zeleney’s third point is unfortunately a real tough test of leadership. When the ship is sinking, the best people always seem to leave first. But you’ve got to find a way to resist because hope rests with them, not the survivors. Acting decisively comes with seeing things as they are, no rose-colored glasses here, and then using general common sense and principles to make the call and then communicating that clearly. Lastly, the point Zeleny makes is critical not just during tough times, but is part-and-parcel of the MBWA management style. One needs to get around and talk to people vertically and horizontally in the organization in order to get the right insights into what’s making things things go round-and-round. 20,000ft views don’t work, got to get on the ground with the grunts. It’s common sense, but not so common strangely enough. Maybe it has something to do with 4 walls and its perks…

Last but not least, I wanted to share from Robert Townsend, his view on People and Theory Y from Up the Organization:How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits . This frankly is hard for me to digest being an avowedly and admittedly cynical bastard about people. It’s right there on p 93, he lists out Theory Y in its glory:

1. People don’t hate work. It’s as natural as rest or play.
2. They don’t have to be forced or threatened. If they commit themselves to mutual objectives, they’ll drive themselves more effectively than you can drive them.
3. But they’ll commit themselves only to the extent they can see ways of satisfying their ego and development needs (remember the others are pretty well satisfied and are no longer prime drives.

It seems to fit though. Give it go and see what happens. Worse thing can happen? The same thing that would happen if you didn’t do it. Maybe this way would be the difference.

*My defining moment(s) came during my one experience in a dot-com startup. When we failed to IPO, the VC money ran out. Those days were exhausting and I’ve never forgotten how it was like – such as my whiteboard being used as the Wall of Remembrance after each RIF rather than a list of on-going client projects (i.e. revenue). We were definitely not in Kansas anymore!

  1. Lui Sieh
    August 9, 2008 at 3:08 AM

    The Tatham Group recently posted a good article, You may not like it, but at least it’s fair, about using a common disciplined approach toward communicating and managing organizational change. Starting with senior executives, having an agreed common approach makes employees more receptive toward the organizational change.

    I think this builds on the themes mentioned above. A coordinated, structured communications and change management approach will surely help anxious employees receive the right messages. This helps focus the employees on what’s important, consistently across the organization.


  1. September 4, 2008 at 8:00 PM
  2. September 5, 2008 at 6:01 PM

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