A leader’s job is not to make their people feel comfortable. It’s to make them feel confident.
How can you do that?
1- Address failures swiftly, directly and briefly. Then move on. Effective leaders acknowledge the decisions and strategies that failed in order to help employees grasp the context of what happened and why. This aids in developing judgment and decision-making skills, builds an informed workforce, and increases overall business intelligence. At the same time, the leader is communicating the rationale behind any necessary changes to the strategic direction.
Importantly, these leaders are careful not to lay blame on any one person, team or function. They don’t bemoan the mistakes of the past too harshly or for too long, since this will only foster anxiety and paralysis. The goal is a a brief and concise acknowledgement before shifting the focus to the future.
2 – Over-communicate the new vision and strategy. Feeling in control of your own destiny creates confidence. Successful leaders serve that up to their people by passionately articulating a compelling vision and a refreshed strategy, along with guidance on what employees can do to contribute to the company’s goals.
Too often, leaders (and their teams) vacillate endlessly over the way forward and only share the action plan with those closest to them, often changing course at the first sign of trouble. That only conveys doubt and fear.
You want your team – be it 20 people or 20,000 – moving in lock-step towards a finish line that they are personally and passionately driven to cross – one they believe their leaders are also invested in. Create the plan, cascade it to the entire organization, and maintain a calendar for follow-up communications to provide progress updates, recognition and ongoing encouragement. Actually, this should be in play whether in a downturn or in a growth mode!
3 – Be visible and listen. When times are tough, it’s easy to put your head down and get to work – spending your days in meetings reviewing key initiatives, monitoring progress, and course correcting where needed. There’s a heightened sense of urgency to ensuring plans are on track. All of that is, of course, responsible management.
It’s also essential to be in front of your people, asking questions, listening deeply, and conveying confidence and optimism in them and in the path you’re on together. The leaders I’ve worked with who invested themselves in meaningful connections with employees during downturns ultimately experienced a quicker turn-around in the business … with less turnover of top talent than companies who focused solely on driving results.
When employees don’t see and hear their leaders in times of challenge, they worry and they wonder. Don’t give people an excuse to disengage or become anxious. Instead, give them a leader they feel inspired by, connected to and willing to follow.
4 – Be a Diplomat. Last year, I attended a client’s town hall meeting at which a new strategy – designed to lift the company out of a flat spot – was being introduced. All was going well; the energy and optimism in the room growing as people learned about the new direction. Then one of the C-suite executives tossed out a sarcastic comment (perhaps a poor attempt at humor) about how they were going to “finally execute an innovation strategy the right way” now that Joe was gone and Sue was leading the effort.
Ugh. Like air leaking from a balloon, the excitement went out the window. Worse, it was replaced with a variety of negative reactions: shock, awkwardness, discomfort, anger, speculation, disappointment.
We’ve all had “foot-in-mouth” moments, but the truth is that when you’re in a management role you are held to a higher standard. A faux pas can take on a life of its own. Making fun of or intimating the shortcomings of other leaders – whether departed from or still with your organization – always looks bad. There is rarely an upside. So just don’t do it.
Instead, determine what topics you and your fellow leaders will and won’t be discussing at internal forums. Prepare responses in advance to tough questions you’re likely to be asked (like personnel changes, potential restructurings, or strategic choices you’re not ready to address publicly yet). Build a “leadership script” and stick to it.
Lastly, practice your delivery with a trusted sounding board before you enter town hall or team meetings so that, when the time comes, you will articulate your response crisply and professionally – further building confidence that the right leader (or leadership team) is at the helm.
As the leader setting the path out of a downturn, you might not always feel 100% confident yourself. Having your own vision and action plan for how you intend to operate, who you intend to be in the face of these challenges, will also help you regain that confidence and bring conviction to your voice.
Next up, we’ll look at Success Behaviors that are essential for guiding your organization out of troubled water.