Business Crisis Strategy

Many senior leaders are under extraordinary pressure. It’s lonely at the top, and employees are looking to their leaders for inspiration, direction and protection.

The stakes are high. How senior managers lead in these difficult times can be the difference between the organization failing, surviving or thriving.

C-level executives are the final decision makers; they have ultimate authority and responsibility for meeting internal and external challenges. Strategy — what businesses (and their people) put their attention on — will define success or failure.

As an executive coach, I observe many leaders. The best “strategic” leaders stand out because they:

  • Anticipate the future, keeping the organization agile and “nimble” and effectively adapting and sponsoring change to meet shifting challenges/ opportunities.
  • Develop strategy that balances long-term goals with immediate organization needs.
  • Leverage, engage and empower (not inhibit!) human capital to operate at its full potential.
  • Develop and communicate a clear plan with priorities and course of action (providing a “rudder” for navigating stormy seas).

Here are some of my coaching suggestions to help senior leaders successfully chart the course ahead:

  • Develop strategy to maximize and support your existing resources. Identify key internal resources (those with a track record in meeting challenges, with the necessary leadership and critical skill sets) and external resources (customers, consultants and supplier/service relationships). What would the impact be if you lose your top salesperson, your largest customer or if your key supplier goes out of business next week? Your plan should address how you will retain and build credibility with key staff and customers. Deliver clear messages to help you stand out in the marketplace (and keep customers loyal). Make sure to include contingencies in your plan.
  • Provide focus. Make sure your people are working on the “right” priorities. As a coach, it astonishes me how many bosses are unaware of what their employees spend their day-to-day time on. Find out. Have your reports define what they do, including what and how they prioritize their work. Make sure they are aligned with current strategy, then support them in achieving prioritized goals.
  • Help staff deal appropriately with escalating stress levels. Consider tactics such as a “state of the union” company meeting or offering professional conflict resolution training. Many competent managers I coach confide in me they are ill-equipped to deal with the trauma/drama involved with today’s emotional, stressed-out employees and customers. They need tools and techniques to “de-escalate” themselves and upset customers or coworkers.
  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Think strategically; cut back smartly and continue to invest wisely. Strategic leaders understand the importance and impact of continued investment in critical areas such as IT, R&D, motivating employees and effective leadership/employee development. These are still (and will always be) key success drivers. Broad-brush layoffs should be a last resort as most companies have a significant investment in their human resource capital. Layoffs are often counterproductive. While they may appear to solve short-term financial problems they often create a climate of uncertainty for remaining staff and customers.
  • Respond to new business opportunities as a result of current market conditions. The present crisis is an extraordinary opportunity for those well-positioned to capitalize on opportunities — but only for those who have their eye on the big picture.
  • Reward and motivate your best; view them as a resource to be leveraged vs. a “cost” to be reduced. Keep talent engaged, inspired, supported and appropriately rewarded, or risk losing them. My coaching phone is ringing with uninspired and unsupported talent (most who haven’t told their bosses they are leaving) because they feel unappreciated, “hung out to dry” or underutilized. Times like these present a unique opportunity to either “poach” talent away or to secure talent that isn’t typically available. The best are rarely (if ever) “out in the streets,” even during tough times like these. Top performers understand their value and will find an environment where they can succeed. Recognize that losing talent often equates to losing key company knowledge and customer relationships.
  • Clarify for those worried about “job security” how you measure success. In the end, the best job protection is generating value in excess of the expense you carry. These days organizations can’t afford to carry “dead wood,” “coasters” or “pretenders.”
  • Get support. Find someone to talk to about doubts, fears and overcoming challenges. Executive coaches can provide support, an objective perspective and insight to help increase the probability for success. The best will help you figure out how to focus strategically and get out of your own way.

Wise leaders use external executive coaches as an objective sounding board and for competent guidance with the people challenges they face–I  help leaders anywhere in the world via Skype – call me  360 682 5807.

De-stress at work

American workers are more stressed out than ever. The American Psychological Association just released its annual “2008 Stress in America” poll and the findings aren’t surprising — the economic downturn is taking a physical and mental toll. Half of Americans surveyed say they are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs. Fifty-three percent report fatigue, 60 percent report feelings of irritability or anger, and 52 percent report difficulty sleeping as a result of stress.

All this stress obviously affects American workplaces, particularly morale and productivity. Short fuses dramatically increase the potential for problematic or dysfunctional behaviors that affect everyone from upper management and co-workers to customers.

Managing stress is vital to overall workplace and employee health. Here are some suggestions for what you can do to cope better:

  • Pay attention to your body’s stress signals. Holding your breath, rapid heart rate, stomach in knots — muscle tension is your body’s way of trying to tell you something. Identify your best “self soothing” strategy when you recognize these signs. For many, deep conscious breathing (belly breathing) helps, not the shallow breathing most of us do when we are in pain or in stress.

Your breath is always with you, so deep breathing is a technique you can always count on.

Other strategies like meditation or listening to relaxing music can help “ground” you.

  • Take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Stay active. Exercise releases endorphins, which make us feel better, and is a proven way to reduce stress. Find ways to “chill” — yoga, watching a funny movie, etc. For those who can pull it off, taking a short catnap can do wonders.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and reminders of the “what matters” in your life. Avoid those who are vexations to your spirit and cause you unnecessary stress.
  • Disconnect from the stream of constant bad news. If you find yourself obsessively checking your 401(k) balance or the plummeting stock market — stop! Keep perspective; focus on what you can control and avoid fretting about what you can’t.
  • Tough times like these frequently mean we are being asked to do more with less. Coach’s tip: give up “perfectionism.” Ask your boss to prioritize your work load; if your boss drops additional work on you, ask what part of your normal work load you can give up to accomplish the new task.

If saying no is a problem for you, get some coaching help. Trying to do it all is a never-ending hamster wheel.

  • Plan. Planning helps lessen being overwhelmed by providing focus and control in your workday. Start each work day by creating your “to do” list and prioritize those tasks that must get done. Knock these out when your energy is high (for most, this is in the morning).
  • Remember humor and fun are good for the workplace. Researchers from California State University Long Beach determined that people who have fun at work are more creative, more productive, work better with others and call in sick less often. Enjoyable activities are good for team building and effective stress relievers.
  • Get enough sleep. Stress and fear release cortisol and adrenaline, which increase heart rate, making it difficult for many to sleep. Another good reason to exercise: it will help you sleep better.
  • Find support. Friends, family or a therapist can provide emotional support to help you through the most difficult times. Industry and professional associates can provide community and shared experiences. Professional coaches can help you get unstuck, navigate through difficult times and provide unbiased perspective.

In the midst of a crisis, we look to our leaders to provide calm, order and direction. See next week’s column for tips on leading during turbulent times.

Managing With Sensitivity

Managing and leading during tough times can be very difficult (and, let’s face it — at times, downright awful).

During these hard times, the “heart” in leadership matters greatly.

Emotions are running high; fear, anxiety and anger are a given with layoffs. Rumors are flying. Telling an employee he or she no longer has a job is gut-wrenching — no matter the reason or circumstances.

Though there is no perfect way or words to use, there are ways to make this daunting task both intentional and considerate. Here are a few:

Communicate: Proactive, consistent and genuine communication during tough times and potential layoffs is imperative — do it early, often and with candor.

Avoid sugarcoating the truth. Whenever possible deliver difficult messages in person.

Prepare for a difficult conversation: Choose a location that offers privacy and avoid distractions (no cell phones, PDAs or computer screens).

Be prepared to answer questions such as:

  • Who made the decision and how was it made?
  • Who else will be let go?
  • What are my options at this point (i.e., are there other jobs or outplacement resources available)?

Share with those being laid off how much you have appreciated working with them and acknowledge them for their contributions. Offer positive suggestions for moving forward, including detailing outplacement resources available to them.

Be empathetic: Deliver the message calmly with compassion and sensitivity. Be straightforward and clear while being sensitive to the employee’s emotions and reactions.

Acknowledge the obvious — that this is difficult news to hear and give. Convey empathy around the employee’s feelings and situation.

If the employee loses control of his or her emotions during the meeting, suggest a break, offer him or her the rest of the day off or see if you can call someone to come pick him or her up. Use self-soothing strategies (taking deep breaths can help) to calm yourself.

Provide emotionally intelligent leadership for the “survivors”: Don’t be emotionally tone deaf to the anguish or stress of your people.

Layoffs, or downsizing, has a dramatic impact throughout the organization. It’s easy to forget that “survivors” are affected as well. They are saying goodbye to friends and trusted colleagues whom they respect and care about and often have feelings of guilt or anxiety about their futures. Losing staff typically also means big changes in how survivors will do their work.

Bring your team together to talk about how they feel (be respectful to those who may not want to talk about it) and be accessible for people to come to you about their concerns. Be sensitive and allow them time, space and support they need to heal.

Expect productivity to go down for a while: Be conscientious around setting reasonable expectations and pace in light of the changes made.

Refocus resources and redefine priorities — and where possible streamline processes and work flow. The survivors will be justifiably concerned about a) how much work there is to do, b) are they up to new tasks they may need to absorb and c) will they have the time/energy to complete them. Reclarify expectations moving forward and your commitment to supporting their efforts moving ahead.

Focus on rebuilding trust: Trust has been lost during a layoff — count on it. As a leader, you will need to put extra emphasis on building it back up again.

Go back to basics: Reconfirm the vision and core values as a constant that has not changed. Be a truth teller and an adult — don’t ignore reality nor make promises you can’t keep. Be visible and available (don’t hide out in your office!) and understand that every behavior you do and words that you say will be scrutinized.

People in extreme situations need leadership and confidence more than ever. They look to their leaders for cues about how they should be responding. True leaders will differentiate from the pretenders during difficult circumstances — they will create safety and demonstrate that they are calm, sensitive and affirming with others even under great stress.

Practice extreme self-care: Managing the pain of others will take a toll on you — both emotionally and physically.

It is during tough times that your people need you the most and you will be no good to them if you are depleted. Find extra support.  As an executive coach, I can help you so you don’t have to “go it alone” (360 682 5807).  I Skype with clients anywhere in the world.


Leading and Layoffs

Many leaders are forced to make difficult decisions that negatively affect people they care about. No one likes to lay people off or cut back resources, creating more work and stress. All of this comes at a great emotional cost.

It’s often said that true leaders emerge during times of crisis. Company leaders have a lot riding on how they respond. These days all eyes are on them. Everything they do and say is scrutinized. Workers are paying attention to every nuance trying to figure out “what’s really going on.”

Unfortunately, few company leaders are actually communicating. A recent national survey showed that 71 percent of those surveyed felt that their company’s leadership should be communicating more about current economic problems, and 54 percent have not heard from company leaders at all on the impact of the financial crisis on their company.

American workers are naturally feeling unsure and anxious during this economic downturn. We look to our workplace leaders for cues about how we should be responding. Silence is a response — but not an effective one.

What can leaders do?

  • Communicate frequently with the 3 C’s: clearly, credibly and candidly. During a crisis, communication is more important than ever. Ambiguity and uncertainty equate to stress. If you go silent, people will make up their own stories about what’s really going on with you and the company. Rumors often generate negativity and fan the flames of fear and anxiety.
  • Keep connected. Manage by walking around. You can’t afford during times like these not to know what’s really going on. Be diligent in seeking out information, even the bad news. It’s a mistake during a crisis to hide out in your office with the door closed. Nervous followers need comfort and reassurance from their leaders. Be visible and keep checking in with all levels of staff to see how people are doing.
  • Ask yourself, “What kind of emotional wake do I want to leave behind me today?” The emotions of a leader are highly contagious, so work hard to manage your own anxiety. No one will affect the overall workplace mood and morale more than a senior leader. Be mindful that any negative comments or tone will carry impact. If you show up like a cat on a hot tin roof, your anxiety will spread like a wildfire. Manage your own anxiety by developing a “self-soothing strategy” you can rely on. Find someone you can vent to safely, such as a trusted outside adviser or coach who also can offer an objective perspective.
  • Pay attention to task and people; be alert to their emotions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all is well or that your people will simply need to “deal with it.” Develop a proactive plan to recognize, identify and deal with current challenges and emotions in the workplace. Set time aside in team meetings to allow people to vent and talk about their anxieties and challenges. Listen and acknowledge what you hear them saying.
  • Be the anchor in the storm; display calm confidence and optimism. Model what you want from your team. This is your golden opportunity to truly lead by example and live your values.
  • Keep your team focused. Identify the single most important priority goal that everyone needs to commit to in order to weather the storm. Make sure everyone understands it and is clear what their part will be — their action item(s) in helping the team achieve it. Let them know there will be no tolerance for the “it’s not my job” syndrome for this goal! Create a measurable scoreboard for the goal, review it at every team meeting and recognize/celebrate critical milestones.
  • Engage hearts and minds (particularly your top performers’) to increase productivity. Facilitate a session to get all hands on deck. Bring the team or company together to brainstorm creative solutions for the game plan. Focus on core strengths and values, company vision and how to keep customer confidence high.
  • Stay the course. Reinforce the plan with follow-up, recognition, redefining expectations and adequate resource support for weathering the storm. Retaining your top talent during slow growth will be challenging — they get restless. Work to keep them engaged, well supported and rewarded. On that note, everyone’s extra effort should be noted and recognized.

#1 Leadership Mistake: Silence

THESE ARE ANXIOUS times in the American workplace. Retailers had the worst Christmas season in decades, long-standing companies are closing their doors, workers are being laid off by the thousands and cutbacks are far and wide. Needless to say, tensions are running high everywhere. There is a lot of fear of the unknown; workers are literally worried sick. How to deal with all of this anxiety is a timely topic worthy of exploration.

In small doses, anxiety can be a useful emotion. It helps alert us to danger and can spark us into taking needed action. But when anxiety is chronic and hinders us (driving negative behavior or paralyzing us), it’s time to address it.

Wise leaders understand that emotions are contagious. Anxiety left unchecked can spread like wildfire in today’s environment. Companies and senior managers need to take a proactive approach to managing anxiety or risk it paralyzing their work force.

Here are a few coach’s tips to address and reduce workplace anxiety:

  • Discuss relevant matters openly and appropriately. Bring your team together to talk about their stress and emotions. Tell them what is going on; give as much information as possible. The worst thing senior leaders can do during these turbulent difficult times is to go silent. Communicate often. Discuss how the organization plans to get through the tough times ahead, letting individuals know how they can contribute.
  • Foster an environment that promotes fairness, compassion and transparency. People are in turmoil — to ignore this is ill advised. This is a time to be available if you are a leader; listen well and acknowledge the concerns of staff. Caring about the emotional health of employees is important. Leaders can’t afford to be oblivious to what is going on with their people emotionally — it results in collective distress, which leads to poor performance. Recognize when workers are “flooded” (overwhelmed by their emotions in a fight-or-flight reptilian brain response) and allow them time and space to recover.
  • Keep your people connected (and I don’t mean electronically). It’s not healthy for people to hide out in cubicles struggling to concentrate day after day. We need human-to-human contact. It helps soothe anxiety and fear. Research shows that positive human contact reduces stress hormones. People in pain are helped when others reach out to them (allowing them to function more effectively again). Allowing time for employees to share human emotions and feelings is not only good for business — it’s being a good human being.
  • Leaders’ emotions are particularly contagious, so managing anxiety is important. People look to their leaders for cues about how they should respond. How leaders “show up” emotionally can have a huge impact (positively or negatively) on an entire team or organization. Leaders can’t help their people manage their emotions unless they first manage their own behaviors.
  • Develop self-soothing methods. There are numerous techniques that can help — tightening and then relaxing muscles, awareness of breath (slowing it down), deep cleansing breaths, meditation, listening to classical music or talking a walk around the block. All can help you feel more centered and calm.
  • Dig yourself out. Reduce physical and electronic clutter — it adds to anxiety and drains energy. Find a workable system to track e-mails and filing. Clear time in your day to organize, prioritize and plan.
  • Learn to notice and track your anxiety. One in 10 people are prone to anxiety disorders (get professional help if this is you!). It can be helpful to track and record in a journal or matrix what triggers anxiety for you. See if by keeping track over time you notice any patterns. Identifying the negative internal tapes that accompany anxiety can be helpful in getting rid of them. Practice noticing the thought pattern and letting it go or “shooting” your automatic internal critic.

Invest in your people with skill development, coaching support and training. Given the extreme stress levels in today’s workplace, this is a prime time to offer staff or management conflict resolution, emotional intelligence and/or communication training. There are learnable skills, techniques and tools that I train that can help your people work through differences more effectively in today’s turbulent, uncertain environment.  Call today for help:  360 682 5807