How to Lead During Turbulent Times

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“It seemed that every time I turned around, something broke or blew up,” Eric said.  “In a weak economy, we lost two major accounts, a new product roll out was behind schedule, and a warehouse burned.”

Eric explained further that his team members exchanged numerous phone calls, emails and held many meetings.  Another manager said, “It was total chaos.  There was no system.  Members interrupted each other and did not listen.  Suggestions bounced around randomly.  A few focused on blaming someone or something.  A ‘woe is me’ pall emerged.”

Eventually, Eric’s vice president joined the meetings and put forth a way to proceed that included the following:

  1. Rank the issues according to impact on mission.
  1. Identify actions to address the high-priority issues.
  1. Make decisions quickly and do not strive for consensus.
  1. Assign “owners” to carry out the action plans.
  1. Review actions weekly and adjust.

Some leaders mistakenly attempt to resolve all of the issues simultaneously.  Others allow too much discussion.  Input is important but incessant bickering eventually sucks up all of the team’s energy; members become dispirited and lose focus.

In short, avoid spending time on forces beyond your control, make decisions on high-impact issues and adjust as you go.

 

Under Pressure, Effective Leaders Slow Their Metabolism


During a passionate discussion regarding a warranty issue with an important customer, comments bounced around the conference table like ping pong balls.

“I think the customer abused the product.”

“Our assembly instructions were very clear.”

“My team offered help many times; they said they did not need help.”

“We are probably going to have similar problems with other customers.”

“I say let the attorneys resolve the issue.”

Under pressure, some leaders (like athletes) rise to the occasion and perform superbly.  Others “choke” and flounder.  What is the difference?

Stressful events arouse primal instincts which encourage fight (attack weaknesses) or flight (protect yourself by escaping).  These forces, in current society, may lead to rash decisions and/or destructive behaviors

In the discussion on warranty issues, voices grew louder, more persistent and even harsh.  Defensive comments flourished and non-verbals leaned aggressive.  Suggestions focused on blaming the customer (fight) or establishing procedures designed to protect the company (flight).  There was little effort to summarize or analyze rational options.

High-pressure performers slow their heart rates, breathe normally, relax their muscles, remain calm and speak confidently.  Frenzied actions appear to slow down. Important data separates itself from jumbled facts.  Clouds dissolve.  Murky situations clarify.  The path forward opens.  Winning decisions and productive behaviors occur.

Effective Leaders Make Hard Decisions


An administrator of a group of professionals said to me, “My team knows more about their responsibilities than I do.  I rely heavily on their input for major decisions.”

“Are there times when your team disagrees?” I asked.

“Oh sure.  But we talk it out.  Sometimes, when there are strong opinions, we may postpone a decision until we have more information.”

When I talked to team members, I got a different perception.  One said, “Our administrator does not like to make decisions.  We discuss and discuss.  Sometimes we put important decisions off too long.”

Another said, “Eventually, we grow weary of discussing and agree to things we may not even support.”

I think many leaders, under the guise of participative leadership, allow discussions to continue to a numbing point.  Fatigue sets in and members accept a compromised, water-down decision just to get rid of it.  In addition to a weakened decision, members show little passion for executing.

It is important, I believe, for leaders to get input from their team members when making complex decisions.  However, decision making is a key responsibility of leadership. Effective leaders collect data, offer suggestions, seek input and then make clear and unequivocal decisions.

Tell Employees Now or Wait?


Maybe Yes No Red Dice Representing Uncertainty And Decisions

“I’ve just reviewed our recent performance data, and we may need to change some work assignments,” the vice president reported in his Monday morning management meeting.  “But I want you to keep this in the room for now.  I’ll know more in a couple of weeks.  We can communicate the changes at that time.”

Although the vice president’s decision represents a typical approach, the result is usually exaggerated rumors and fear.

In most employee surveys, among the highest ranked items is, “the need to know about changes that impact me.”

“I believe in quickly communicating changes,” a manager said to me.  “But I don’t want employees worrying about things until we know for sure what we are doing.”

Employees are great at reading the tea leaves.  They notice whether orders have ticked up or down, and whether their managers spend more or less time in meetings, on the phone or traveling.  Many employees have contact with customers, vendors, information technology staff, regulators and truck drivers; all of which are information sources.

I say it is far better to err on the side of communicating too much too soon.  Employees will have greater confidence in leaders and the rumor mill will be less active.

 

The Participative Planning Illusion


(Part 2 of 2 Parts)

After assuming his CEO role, Harris’s message to employees was, “I believe we have a lot of opportunities for bringing on new products and improving our promotions.”  Harris further explained that he had scheduled a retreat with his seven direct reports to firm up a strategic plan.

Prior to the retreat, Harris and his team researched industry trends, competitors’ strategies, and the company’s internal strengths and weaknesses.

During the retreat Harris unfolded his vision of investing heavily in product development and changing promotions to rely more on social media and celebrity sponsors.

After vigorous and extensive debates, team members enthusiastically agreed that they emerged from the retreat with sound plans for improving products and promotions.

Following the retreat, Harris and his team presented goals, timetables and metrics to all operating managers.  After making a few modifications based on managers’ suggestions, all divisions understood and readily accepted their responsibilities.

The antidote to the illusion of participative planning is for the leader to initiate a clear vision and strategies.  Of course, the leader should encourage suggestions and accept improvements.   Also, particular departments should have some latitude in how they execute their contributions to the plan.

 

You Must Learn to Read Your Manager


Two newly appointed managers were discussing their vice president.

“I have a hard time communicating with him.  He asks for status reports but he doesn’t listen, he interrupts, and seems easily distracted.”

“How do you present your information?”

“I send him written reports.  In meetings, I give him updates and back them up with data and justifications.”

“He doesn’t want to hear all of that.  He is not a reader.  Just give him two or three key data points.  Use charts and graphs.  If he wants more information, he will ask.”

To communicate well, managers must learn to read their bosses preferences.  Does the boss prefer written or oral reports?  Just a summary or gobs of tedious minutiae?

Some managers want to hear about plan disruptions immediately.  Others like more systematic, periodic reports and may say, “Bring that up at our next meeting.”

Above all, find out what most interests your manager, that is, what may keep the boss up at night.  Is it schedule?  Work quality?  Safety?  Customer service?  Something else?

By learning your boss’s preferences, you will know where to put your energy.  Further, your encounters will be both more pleasant and more effective.

How Do You Make Complex Decisions?


When I’ve asked managers how they make important decisions, I get responses like:

“Who can say. We talk about an issue and after a lot of back-and-forth propositions and challenges, an option sometimes emerges.”

“We discuss and discuss. We may not even agree on the problem.”

“It’s like trying to get a pro golfer to explain how he hits a ball so far. We just do it.”

Too often, leaders plunge into discussions that just keep churning and churning until there is a brewing chaos. Amidst doubt and confusion members adjourn without a clear direction. Or worse, members agree to a watered-down option for which there is only lukewarm support.

To avoid endless delays or high-risk moon shots, present an issue and discuss until key players agree on the exact problem. Set a deadline for making the decision. Create a climate that encourages vigorous debate of multiple options. View differing opinions as helpful. Take no votes or polls.

Strive for an option that most all can, at least to some extent, support. If no such option emerges, the leader makes the call. Close by saying, “This is what we are going to do and I need everyone’s commitment.”