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Ten Leadership Lessons for Good Times … and Bad

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Ten Leadership Lessons for Good Times … and Bad

The Great Recession and the continuing economic malaise have challenged businesses and leaders alike. Some have been successful; others have found unending stress, disappointment and questions of “how could it get this bad.” As a leader of a consulting firm, specializing in corporate turnaround, we’ve been on the front lines with CEOs and executives struggling to guide their declining businesses forward against difficult odds.

The ultimate accountability for corporate performance resides with the CEO and it is his/her actions that can make the difference between a resilient business or one in decline. After working in and around senior leadership teams for the better part of 20 years, I’ve been impressed by those that have preserved, overcome and succeeded – even in the toughest of circumstances. Below are 10 lessons learned that, if smartly applied, can steer your organization forward – both in good times and bad.

  1. Take Stock of the Economic Realities: If you can’t believe that the numbers will get worse, they can and they will — to points previously unimaginable — so prepare for it. And, prepare quickly. If you are not working fast and with intention, you’ll be late and compromised. This is especially challenging for leaders that have enjoyed wave after wave of success. In fact, the more successful you have been as a business and as a leader, the harder it is to recognize a looming risk. Model the business at levels 15%, 25% and 50% below your current top line and plan out your response now versus waiting for the unavoidable later.

  2. Assess the Situation from all Angles: Don’t make a decision just to be seen as doing something. Any significant change needs to be deliberate and thought out. It shouldn’t be force-fit or implemented simply to demonstrate that you’re taking action. The change in itself will be an upheaval and in the short term it may set the organization back, so be true to what you know is really right.

  3. Take an Unbiased Assessment of Your People: Real change does not often come by simply rearranging the “deck chairs” of the organizational structure. Changing outcomes may mean changing out the people. While it’s important to lead from the heart, there are many hearts in the organization. Your job is serving the ‘heart’ of the organization, as a whole — not the loyal, well liked career employee. While it is important to recognize the talent and past contributions of tenured staff, assess whether their skills are in alignment to the current needs of the business. Can they be better used in a different capacity — or at a different business? If you answered “Yes” to either question, act now.

  4. Move Quickly: Treat everything with a sense of urgency and move with intentional purpose. Eliminate the “I’ll do it tomorrow” attitudes and pace of activity. Each hour and each day is time that can never be regained. If you are scheduling an important client meeting three weeks out, move it up. A budget discussion with your leadership team next month, move it up. A critical decision to be made next week, move it up. If you’re not acting early, you’ll be late.

  5. Be Present with Customers: Stay close to your customers — own those strategic relationships personally. People buy from people. Knowing what they buy is the “table stakes;” but, knowing why they buy drives growth. No longer is it just the value of the product, but the customer’s emotional connection to it — them with you.

  6. Gather Insights from the Organization: Listen deeply at all levels. The organization knows and sees more than you do. Ask for perspective. Seek out opinions and ideas. Show some vulnerability — you can’t possibly have all the answers, so learn from others and get them in the boat with you. Success doesn’t come from going it alone, but by garnering the commitment and support of your employees. By reaching out, not only will they better appreciate the overall corporate situation but more importantly, what you’re trying to do to improve it, through them.

  7. Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate: Your people are watching your every move. Be an ever-present, positive force. Walk around, be in touch. Create a motivating environment that encourages activity, in order to balance against the fear and exhaustion of the troops. Frequently and openly communicating also eliminates the productivity drain of the water cooler rumor mill. There is no better way to create an engaged organization than by simply taking the time to have quality interactions with those who really are the “eyes and ears” of the business.

  8. Stay on Purpose, Forget the Past: Past successes don’t guarantee the future. Achievement is not an entitlement. Success and accolades may have come easy in the past, but staying on top in the “new reality” takes harder work and single-minded purpose. Don’t get stymied and “off task” by all the information and data swirling around you. Stay focused on what matters most. Put your head down and get it done. You’ll be better for it.

  9. Celebrate: Take pride in the small wins. Recognize and celebrate milestones of achievement — both individuals and the organization, as a whole. Working relentlessly in tough circumstances takes its toll. Stepping back and taking stock of achievements along the way is the fuel of motivation. There may have been bigger victories in the past, but there are achievements today to be more proud of than ever before.

  10. Strength as a Leader: The greatest lesson: there is absolute strength and commanding power in demonstrating grace under pressure. Don’t compromise. Do what is right. Have courage. This is a sign of integrity and demonstrates who you are.  Your people will be looking to you for it.


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Laurie Brunner
Laurie Brunner
As President at MainStream Management (“MainStream”), Ms. Brunner has oversight for the major functions of the company including strategy, operations, consulting delivery, product initiatives, marketing, and business development. She is responsible for steering the company towards long-term growth opportunities and extending the company’s worldwide market presence. Ms. Brunner is deeply knowledgeable in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives and serves as an invaluable advisor to organizations seeking to develop project leadership capabilities and advance business success through people. Ms. Brunner has experience in organizational restructuring, employee engagement and programs to enhance the competitiveness of Fortune 500 and public sector clients globally. Ms. Brunner’s international experience spans worldwide across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, having supported clients in Brazil, Canada, China, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, along with delivery work for clients in the Middle East.