In early July of 2008, I wrote a blog about the prospects for an economic blowout in the near future. Even months before it happened, a failure of the U.S. automobile industry seemed very probable in my opinion.
The intention was not to dump on the leaders of the auto industry, or government, or anyone else. Rather, I wanted to help prepare readers for a probable meltdown so that they could survive – and perhaps even thrive – during a period of massive turmoil across multiple industries.
Sadly, the worst has occurred since then. Layoffs and unemployment levels are in the news each day across the U.S. The American auto industry’s “big 3” are in real danger of bankruptcy. Even with expected government bailouts, the car sector will never again look like it did going into the past summer. The same will be true for once-strong organizations across of wide swath of industries according to many pundits.
I recently came across some presentations and forecasts generated for a recent convocation of Harvard Business School grads, all now leaders in business or academics themselves. They reached no consensus regarding how long this crisis will last. Some were of the belief it could be over in six months while others forecasted nine years. People like Meg Whitman of Ebay worried about a potential six- or seven-year recession, while Harvard History Professor Niall Ferguson noted that anyone saying this is the bottom is “in denial.” Regardless of where you live in the U.S., or what industry you’re in, there’s a genuine possibility that you will not escape this debacle unharmed. That means every country in the world will be impacted even further.
A few weeks ago I started getting requests from news services across Canada and the U.S. to discuss what managers and leaders can do to ensure that they come out of this period in the best shape possible. I believe the number of requests is going to grow. That’s because there is a real potential that the worst is yet to come.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about how leaders – at all levels – can use this time to ensure that their organizations change to become the best ever. Many great organizations (and countries) are great because they met tough challenges and overcame them.
1. Action is required now. Your team needs to see you are responding and moving ahead. This doesn’t mean having more meetings. Showing your team that you are engaged and acting with confidence makes them more confident and ready to push harder.
2. Recognize that the greatest plans are often the simplest. The famous Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz said, “everything in strategy is very simple, but that doesn’t mean that everything in strategy is very easy.” His book, On War, is a great primer for succeeding in a difficult time by the way.
3. Triage. Fix the biggest problems that can be fixed immediately. Don’t waste time or energy on problems that appear unfixable.
4. Rethink what is “right.” I don’t care how many CEOs tell me that their first responsibility is to make a lot of money for the company. I believe that great companies make a lot of money because they do what is right – they provide good service, smart answers, better quality, whatever. And their customers reward them with great profits.
In the auto industry, that means making cars that get 100 miles per gallon and that are still fun and interesting. In the airlines business, that means honoring the customers’ expectations for on-time arrivals, comfort, and luggage carriage. In the IT sector, it means working more closely with both external and internal clients to provide the best ideas, products, and services in a timely fashion.
5. Help others. And yourself. When we look after those who are unable to look after themselves, it makes us better. And we become more successful as a result. Kind of like a business Karma.