I’ve often heard (in one variant or another) the idea that we should measure the strength of our friendships and relationships not when times are easy, but when they are hard. And having been through some pretty wondrous highs and some amazing nadirs, I tend to agree. Lots of people join you at one of life’s apexes (apices?), but it can get much lonelier when you’re in a deep hole.
A similar disparity happens in leadership. Almost every leader looks like a genius when their organization is on top. When it’s changing the world, or eating its competition for breakfast, or exceeding whatever the goal is — it’s tough to look bad. And it’s much tougher to make a bad decision. Or at least one that you can tell is bad.
But when the organization is struggling, the measure of a leader is much more on display. Suppose your organization is getting battered by the economy and taking on (metaphorical) water. Or your team just missed a critical set of deadlines and melted down, with hostility and recrimination all around. Or you are losing so many employees that you are tempted to ask the last one to turn the lights out on their way.
These are hardly a leader’s fantasies. In fact, all too often, they aren’t fantasies at all — they can be very real. So what’s a leader to do then?
Tempting options abound. Most of them are pretty bad:
Option one: Bolt. Maybe if you jump ship quickly enough, you won’t get the stink of disaster on you. This option may especially look good if you haven’t been there a long time. After all, who would miss you?
Option two: Dig a hole in the ground, and insert your head. Problem? What problem? Surely if you just ignore it, it will go away. That always seems to work — especially in cartoons, where Bugs Bunny can hover in midair, defying the law of gravity, because he “never studied law.”
Option three: Begin blamestorming. It’s a fun exercise: come up with a laundry list of all the possible people and/or conditions that you can blame for the troubles. Of course, you’ll want to leave yourself off that list, just in case other people are paying attention.
Option four: Radically change everything. You’ve hit a rough patch, so everything that was happening before must be wrong. Change it all. If you really want to take this to its limit, you’ll want to get rid of all the people on the team, too, and bring in all-new staff. This option is especially tempting when your troubles generate media attention, because it’s an easy-to-understand, measurable change that you can point to in response.
Option five: Change nothing. This is sort of like option two above, but more knowing. You know there are problems, that things aren’t really working the way you want, but surely with time, it’ll all work out on its own. This is like selling your products at a loss, but believing that you’ll make it up “on volume.”
So if these are a bunch of the options, and none of them are good (by the way, if you missed the tone up there, note: none of them are good), what to do? Well, if every situation was the same, then the advice could be universal — but unfortunately, it’s not. There are some strategies that can help, though.
First, do some situational analysis. How bad is it really? If you’re losing staff quickly, what does that mean? Is it seasonal? Is it because a group finished a big project? Sometimes, lots of unrelated stuff can look like a trend. It’s important to know how big the problem is, and whether or not it’s going to keep going.
Then think about causes. This isn’t the same as blamestorming, but rather focuses on a handful of the major contributing causes of the issues. The idea isn’t to find scapegoats, but instead to figure out what you can change externally, or what you need to respond to internally.
Then start to prioritize your response. What responses carry the least cost in terms of time and/or money, but have the biggest bang? It can help to make lists and then rate them on a 1-3 scale for speed (3 is fastest, 1 is slowest), for cost (3 is cheapest, 1 is most costly), and for size of “bang” (3 is biggest bang, 1 is littlest peep). Then add the three ratings together, and go from highest total to lowest total.
Finally, make sure that through all of these steps, you aren’t operating in a vacuum. If your group is in a tough spot, your group needs to help get out of it — so ensure that the whole group is up to speed on what’s going on and has input on how to fix it. The biggest insights often come from the most unexpected places.
The best way to lead in troubled times, of course, is to avoid them altogether. Since that’s not often possible, the next best thing is to make sure that your teams have leaders who know how to do it. That’s the whole idea behind Developing Great Leaders…