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March 2009: Tough Times Leadership: Are You Ready to 'Stay in the Game'?

I remember starting my freshman year in college at an out-of-state school, Wake Forest University, feeling ambitious, excited and ready to take on the world. It wasn't long, however, before all I could report home was how miserable I felt. Although I'd made the cheerleading squad and was getting good grades, everything surrounding me differed drastically from my earlier life experiences in Ohio. I just didn't feel like I was "fitting in" and my usual "success strategies" didn’t seem to be working. My confidence was shaken. Then I received a letter from my Dad (a first!) with a very important message: no matter what you've done or achieved before, the challenge you need to meet now is to "stay in the game."

After many years of hindsight I realize that my whining was just symptomatic of having my first "identity crisis", which is not an uncommon rite of passage for a college freshman. But, over the years when I've faced personal or professional challenges my Dad's message to "stay in the game" has continued to be relevant and inspirational.

In fact, I found myself thinking of that same advice recently when one of my clients, a very successful store manager in the luxury retail business, was lamenting the lack of traffic in her store and the precipitous drop in store revenues. While obviously concerned about her store's below budget results, she was also worried about her sales staff's morale and motivation. I asked her what she was doing to lead them during such challenging times and she told me that she's keeping them focused on the beautiful and stylish merchandise they have to sell, e.g. "wouldn't Client X really look good in that"; holding team brainstorming sessions on creative marketing strategies; and scheduling store improvement projects. She's keeping her people "in the game", not letting them whine on the sidelines.

My Dad was right. Staying in the game is exactly what's required when tough times hit like they've hit so many of us now. No matter where you look there doesn't seem to be much good news. Tough times, whatever their causes, means the pressure is on and the stakes are high. And while emotionally we may want to run for cover, staying in the game is crucial.

So what does it mean to practice 'stay in the game' leadership? Let me quickly point out what it doesn't mean: Keep doing exactly what you did in the past and expect the same results!

Here are some leadership strategies for surviving and, eventually, thriving in challenging times:

  • • Realistically assess the forces (economic, competitive, political, social etc.) that are impacting your current reality and the foreseeable future. Denial is not an option. For example, we recently conducted a "Let's Check our Assumptions" exercise for a Strategic Planning follow-up session with an Association's Board of Directors. The original Strategic Plan was based on a far different set of conditions than exist today.
  • • Avoid blaming. There are certainly a lot of places to point fingers for our current global financial crisis. But nothing is more disgusting than to see former leaders like Lehman Brother's fallen chairman Richard Fuld Jr. or John Thain of Merrill Lynch feign almost all responsibility for their roles and at the same time claim their right to exorbitant bonuses.
  • • Re-examine and re-connect to your core values. At times of great duress and turbulence, your core values are your mooring. They ground you in the principles that have guided your success in the past and will enable you to weather the storm. For example, Stew Leonard's, a Connecticut-based grocery store, has a core value that "The customer is No. 1". Despite rising costs and lower margins they are continuing to make sure they are providing customer value.
  • • Forget business as usual. Use the situation to look for new opportunities for changing your business model or game plan. What we know for sure is that when the crisis is over you'll be left with a 'new normal', so begin to predict what that might look like and where you’ll fit in. Examine current needs given the current context and decide what demands attention first. You cannot undo the past. Forget about your difficulties and losses; focus on the present challenges and possible opportunities.
  • • Don't shoulder the burden by yourself. Although it may be tempting to try to fix whatever's ailing your organization by yourself, now is the time to pull together your team and develop a plan with creative ways to address your issues. Be open to advice and new perspectives. Ask for help from your team and from outsiders (customers, industry experts, etc.) and then...Listen!
  • • Practice emotional intelligence. Lead by example and stay engaged. In tough times people's emotions run the gambit from shock, to anger, to denial. You need to be empathetic to people's probable emotions and proactively manage your own "stress" reactions.
  • • Help others and focus on the greater good. Take your team to volunteer at a food pantry or to help clean a neighborhood. Take the time to listen to a colleague or neighbor who's struggling. There are few activities as invigorating as helping others to overcome problems or see opportunities.
  • • During tough times the best leaders know that more than anything we must overcome an inevitable "crisis of confidence". One could argue that -- beyond orchestrating the strategic and operational changes required, the primary job of the leader is to role model and encourage confidence. Keep your team focused on goals, Action Plans and progress.
  • • Take a long view. I started EquiPro International in March 1987 and Black Monday arrived in October 1987. We climbed out of that crisis, as we did after 9/11, and we shall weather this storm, as well. Keep your people focused forward.
  • • Stay balanced and tap sources of personal support. Although tempting, and at times necessary, immersing yourself 24/7 in the issues is the path to burnout. Go to the gym, go to a place of worship, play with your kids, reconnect with family and friends, walk the dog.
  • • Stay engaged and accessible. One of the best examples I recall of leadership team solidarity in a time of crisis was NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani appearing every few hours on television for days following the 9/11 attack, always flanked by members of his administration. Giuliani didn’t hesitate to show his pain at the hundreds of funerals he attended, but at the same time he demonstrated a steady hand on the wheel.
  • • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Leaders are the primary caretakers of a powerful commodity...information. Deciding how much of it, and when to dispense it to key stakeholders or the organization at large, can be especially hard in tough times. Opting to conceal important facts or to deliver mostly sugar-coated messages may be more easily rationalized when news generally trends to the gloomy side, but it is not necessarily wiser. Denying reality won’t change reality. Be honest with yourself and others about what is going on, but watch about painting a catastrophic picture of dorm and gloom. Keeping people in the loop as much as possible is a significant way for you to inspire trust, loyalty and commitment throughout the organization. And don't forget to find and celebrate with others the signs of positive progress.

Leaders in tough times are expected to not only stay in the game but to keep focused on the scoreboard. They are looked to for guidance, inspiration and a clear course of action. In turn, they must look to others for feedback, diverse viewpoints and fresh ideas. Trying to carry the ball down the field by yourself is not the surefire formula for success. At their best, effective leaders serve as a unifying force, drawing an organization together and keeping it together, bringing people through the worst of times to emerge stronger than before.

"Lynda has made several presentations to our Worldwide Team based in the US and to our Global Community of Product Managers and Product Physicians held in Berlin, Lisbon and Miami. Her presentation style is highly professional and motivating and yet is delivered in a way that is open and personable. The teams were very responsive to you because you challenged them and were also supportive."

Jenny Alltoft,
Vice President,
Pfizer Inc.


Lynda McDermott

Lynda is honored to be one of over 570
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