May 12, 2011, Issue 2 

 

Three Ways to Lead in Turbulent Times 

 


Turbulent times. The phrase conjures up a financial slowdown and a tightening credit market. But the economy doesn't need to be in the toilet for your business to go through turmoil.

Even in a booming business environment, your company can still run out of cash, face adverse government regulations, lose a key staff member, have a top customer quit your business or demand a 50% reduction in gross margin, or have a main supplier drop you. Any of these events will create turbulence in your business - even in a growing economy.

So regardless of whether the business environment you are working in today is better or worse, here are just three of dozens of things that can help you manage through turbulent times and beyond.

Communicate with your team regularly. When you are flying on an airplane and there's a lot of turbulence, all anybody wants is for the captain to communicate with the passengers and say, "Hi. It's your captain here, and I just want to let you know what's going on. For the next 15 minutes, we are going to be going through some pretty significant turbulence. Not to worry; this is pretty normal for this time of year."

But leaders (like bad pilots) often don't communicate clearly about what's happening and where things are headed - especially in uncertain times. Instead, they lock themselves up with their team behind closed doors to strategize. They become unresponsive, stop returning calls and don't answer emails because they are too busy focusing on the problem at hand. In the meantime, all the people in the organization start making up their own theories and stories about what's going on. And those stories are usually worse than the reality.

So now, instead of the staff doing their best work, they are worrying about what's going on in the company and talking about that - over lunch, on smoke breaks, in the hallways between meetings. And, just like the passengers on a shaky plane, all they want is for their leader to stand up and tell them what's going on and what the plan is. To stay in touch on an ongoing basis, consider the following communication system:

An annual meeting where the whole company gets together to share the vision for the year to come.

A quarterly management retreat to establish goals and key initiatives for the quarter and determine what it will take to achieve them.

Monthly company meeting to report on how you did as a company overall in the past month and what the plans are for month ahead.

Weekly leadership team meetings that focus on how you are doing with your quarterly goals and what you need to do to ensure that they are met.

Daily department huddles: 10-minute meetings designed to get people focused and energized to tackle the top priorities of the day.

Step away to take time to think. Most leaders find themselves spending the majority of their time reacting to the issues of the day - rather than focusing on where their business is going and how they are going to get there. So where is it that you want to be 12 months from now? What do you desire in terms of revenues and profits? And what's going to guarantee that you get there?

Once you know where you are going, the key is to determine the three or four most meaningful, meaty and measurable actions that you should take to ensure your success. Then spend the majority of your time driving to get those done.

Of course, you need to ask yourself, "What is going to stand in the way of getting these three or four things done?" Here is where the issues and excuses really start to come out. While there may be some reality to any and all of these , it's your job and your team's job to step back and figure out how you're going to overcome what's standing in your way. You need to literally go through the excuses one at a time and find a way to overcome them.

Stay close to your key relationships. All companies have key relationships - with customers, vendors, regulators and the like - that are extremely meaningful and important to their businesses. The problem is that too often, the CEO isn't the one who owns them. What I mean by this is that he or she has allowed the real connection with those critical relationships to be cultivated and managed by other members of the team.

The bottom line is that, in order to protect, nurture and grow your key business relationships, it's essential for you, as the CEO, to be at the center of the most important ones. Many CEOs delegate or even abdicate these key relationships which are then developed without their participation. They get comfortable over time with someone else managing the key relationships and, as a result, put their companies in precarious positions since the people who are managing them could leave at any time.

Instead, take it upon yourself to nurture those critical connections and get to know the main players in your key business relationships. While it's one thing to make the effort to own the relationship by spending business time with your key customer, it's another to go beyond and deepen that relationship with a personal connection. You can do this in simple ways. For example:

Instead of booking a client to come in at 10 a.m. for a short, half-hour meeting, schedule the visit over lunch.

Find out what activities your clients enjoy outside of work (golf, tennis, hiking, cycling, wine tasting, running, etc.) and invite them to connect over one of these. .

If you really want to deepen the relationship, get their family involved by Inviting their spouse and kids to participate with your spouse and kids in a group activity.

Suggest meeting in person at an industry conference for a cup of coffee.

Remember, the deeper the relationship, the closer the relationship, the friendlier the relationship - the longer it will stand with the depths of time.

While you can't predict the breakdowns your business will face, you can employ the above three strategies to navigate your way through turbulent times. Entrepreneurs who invest time in communicating with their staff, stepping back to strategize and staying close to their key customers will stay successful in good times and in bad.


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