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Here We Go Again Leading in Tough Times Lee J. Colan
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No 53.03
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Truism: No Trend goes on forever
This truism prevents complacency during good times and instills hope during tough times.
I wrote this article in 2001 to address how to lead in an economic downturn. Well, 2008
seems to be singing the same song to leaders. I hope you find some timely and timeless
leadership nuggets in this reprised report.
Have you been wishing for the good old days lately? Or at least to rewind the economic
clock 12 months? Leading a company during a slowing economy has plenty of challenges:
What should you change, stop or continue doing?
No graph goes up (or down) forever. The path to sustained growth is like a roller coaster ride.
Your personal assumptions about change and tough times will dictate how your company
will experience the roller coaster ride. In fact, the greatest opportunity for your company to
create a sustainable competitive advantage is during a tough economy.
Organizational change is just a concept. Organizations do not change—individuals change.
If enough individuals change, then you start to reap the benefits of organizational change.
Therefore, this article addresses common vs. effective responses to tough times.
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POWER OF ASSUMPTIONS MODEL
The most important conversation you will ever have is
the one with yourself. This self-talk reflects your underlying
assumptions (about people, the market, your own capabilities).
As an example, if market conditions require your company
to change, you have three choices: stop, start or do something
differently. Since most people assume that “change = loss,”
leaders reflexively stop spending, hiring, training, etc.
These assumptions dictate your personal response to tough times. Personal responses predispose
you to certain behaviors or practices. Ultimately, your behavior has a significant and lasting
impact on the organization. The employees observe your behavior and start to create their own
assumptions of you and the company, and then they start a similar cycle of their own. For better
or for worse, this is how your culture is perpetuated.
Let’s take a look at how the current economy and our leadership practices interact in this 2x2 matrix.
Focus on how your leadership behavior can affect two of these quadrants. Quadrant 2 illustrates
that it is easy to be a good leader during good times—high revenue growth forgives many sins.
It is harder to create a sustainable advantage because if an economy is forgiving, anyone can ride
that wave, even companies with less effective leadership. In Quadrant 1, effective leadership
and poor economic times offer the best opportunity for you to create sustainable distinction in
the marketplace.
Underlying
Assumptions
Leadership
Behavior
Organizational
Impact
Personal
Responses
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LEADERSHIP PRACTICES:
IMPACT ON MARKET POSITION
PERSONAL RESPONSES
TO CHANGE
There are three common responses to change
with corresponding effective responses for each one:
1. Survival vs. Opportunity
2. Control vs. Involvement
3. Panic vs. Focus
Let’s examine each of these separately.
1
Sustainable
Competitive
Advantage
4
Lose Ground on
Competition
2
Competitive
Advantage
3
Potential Short-term
Competitiveness
LeadershipPractices
Effective
Good
Ineffective
Poor
Economic Conditions for Your Business
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1. Survival vs. Opportunity
The survival response uses as its operating assumption, “We just need to stay afloat.” The resulting
leadership behaviors include: reducing headcount, decreasing employee development and controlling
expenses. The organizational impacts of these leadership behaviors are employee cynicism and
sacrificing the company’s long-term capacity to sustain growth.
These are fear-based, defensive responses that reflect the “change = loss” paradigm. It is true that
cash is king during bad times (and good times!) but avoid “majoring on the minors” by eliminating
important rituals, reducing training or saving paper clips.
The more effective alternative to the survival response is the opportunity response. The assump-
tion that underlies the opportunity response is, “Here is an opportunity to improve our business.”
This results in leadership behavior like upgrading the workforce and strategic cost cutting. Greater
employee commitment and a strengthened ability to sustain growth are the outcomes.
The realities of your business may require you to reduce headcount. If so, make sure that you do the
right thing—from a legal, employee relations and market perception standpoint. Resist the conve-
nience of an across-the-board cut and use this opportunity to get rid of your ‘C’ and ‘D’ performers.
Even if you are closing a location, try to re-deploy your best performers elsewhere.
The best run companies always behave like they are losing money. All of your employees should
understand the most basic unit of profitability (e.g., the airlines use revenue/passenger mile). If your
employees understand the drivers of your cost and revenues they can act more like owners of the
business. During tough times, shift your focus from the top line to the bottom line with a close eye
on inventory control, receivables and cash flow.
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2. Control vs. Involvement
The second common response to tough times is control. This response assumes, “We know what
is best for employees. They will just worry.” Resulting behaviors include leaders work in the business
rather than on the business and TLM (tight-lipped management). These kind of behaviors create
distrust in company leadership and an expanded organizational blind spot (weaknesses that every-
one, except you, are aware of).
Many companies that have previously grown over the past several years are now responding with
control. Controlling management practices set them back to old ways of managing when they
were a smaller company. When the leader shifts back to working in the business, rather than on
the business, it predictably squelches any type of ownership behavior by employees.
Studies on organizational change show that most employees do not resist change itself. Rather,
they resist that unknown place between where we are now and where we will be—the Abyss.
The effective alternative to control is involvement. The involvement response assumes, “We must
harness all of our ideas to manage these conditions most effectively.” Leaders who take this more
effective approach work on the business and solicit employee input for solutions. Naturally, these
behaviors result in greater ownership behavior (what every leader wants more of) and a reduced
organizational blind spot.
It is important to not just make employees feel like they are involved—a common, mechanical
substitute for real involvement. Remember, those who underestimate their employee’s intelligence
overestimate their own.
Analysis of cumulative employee attitude research shows that the biggest concern for employees
is communication. However, leaders are continually frustrated that their communication efforts do
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not improve employees’ perceptions of company communication. Further analysis of these
historical data reveals what employees want to know. It boils down to four simple questions leaders
must address:
1. Where are we going? (Strategy)
2. What are we doing to get there? (Plans)
3. How can I contribute? (Roles)
4. What’s in it for me? (Rewards)
Your answers to these “Fundamental Four” questions create a bridge that connects today’s
possibilities to tomorrow’s results. Without this bridge you are dead in the water. With it, you
have the necessary platform to fully engage your team.
In today information-rich, time-poor world, it can be quite challenging to decide what to
communicate to employees and what to withhold. It’s easy to say (usually to ourselves),
“They don’t really need to know all that” or “My team won’t really understand” or “I don’t think
they can handle that news right now.” But the truth is that leaders who underestimate
the power of their employees generally overestimate their own.
The effective alternative to control is involvement.
The involvement response assumes, “We must
harness all of our ideas to manage these conditions
most effectively.”
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When employees don’t get answers to the Fundamental Four, they tend to fill in the blanks with
their own assumptions… and their assumptions are often worst-case scenarios. This is not a
reflection on the leader. It’s human nature. Therefore, beware: Unanswered questions start the
silence spiral:
	 Silence leads to Doubt,
		Doubt leads to Fear,
			 Fear leads to Panic,
				 Panic leads to Worst-Case Thinking.
This spiral can take five minutes or five weeks to develop and play out, but in most cases, it
happens more rapidly than we would imagine. Fill in the silence for your team by answering
the Fundamental 4. For instance, if you learn about a new project in another department that
won’t affect your team for a few months, tell them about it. They can start preparing or, at minimum,
they won’t be caught off guard or perpetuate rumors.
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3. Panic vs. Focus
The third and final common response to tough times is panic. The panic response assumes that
“We better do something different to get through this.” This assumptions leads to a continuous
eye on the next deal and an obsession with creating new initiatives. This results in eroding customer
service and the “ship is adrift” syndrome.
This is a classic entrepreneurial response. Look for a new deal or create another business model.
The problem is that it’s five times more expensive to obtain business for a new customer than
it is from an existing customer. Also, employees really want clear direction—not a plethora of new
initiatives—during tough times.
Focus is the effective alternative to panic. Focus assumes, “Let’s keep doing what we do best.”
Leaders that respond with focus reinforce customer service and existing customer relationships,
and they sustain their marketing efforts. This results in improved perception of market position and
stronger, more profitable customer relationships (again, what every leader wants more of).
Focus is the effective alternative to panic.
Focus assumes, “Let’s keep doing what we do best.”
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Put your resources where you are strongest (core competency). It is tempting to try to shore up
your weak areas during tough times. However, unless those areas are strategic, you will just
be throwing good money after bad. Think about this: since some approximation of the 80/20
Rule exists in almost all systems, we can safely infer that it also exists in your business.
This means that the most profitable 1/5 of your company is 16 times more profitable
than the remaining 4/5. Needless to say, you should regularly look at your most/least
profitable sales people, products, service lines, divisions etc.
Focus on the “vital few”—the 20 percent that has the greatest impact. Do not only rely on your
instincts to identify your vital few—use data to determine the truth about your team’s perfor-
mance. Look at customers, services, products, processes and people to find the 20 percent that
drive the majority of your productivity, activity, waste, conflict or down time.
In Good Times and in Bad
Many of the leadership practices that we suggest under “Effective Responses” should be done
all of the time. For example, watching your expenses is like cleaning your house—you always
have to do it. Regardless of where your company is on the economic roller coaster, you should
consider the organizational impact of your own personal assumptions and leadership behavior.
We led our way out of the 2001 downturn, and we will do it again. First, let’s get to work!
On the following page is a table that summarizes each personal response to change.
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Response Assumptions Leadership Behavior Organizational Impact
Common: Survival “We just need to
stay afloat.”
Eliminate headcount
Decrease employee
development
Control expenses
Employee cynicism
Sacrifice long-term capacity
to sustain growth
Effective: Opportunity “Here is an opportunity
to improve our business.”
Upgrade workforce
Strategic cost cutting
Committed employees
Strengthened ability to
sustain growth
Common: Control “We know what is best
for employees. They will
just worry.”
Work in the business
TLM (Tight-lipped
management)
Distrust
Expanded organizational
blind spot
Effective: Involvement “We must harness all of
our ideas to manage these
times most effectively.”
Work on the business
Solicit employee input
for solutions
Ownership behavior
Reduced organizational
blind spot
Common: Panic “We better do
something different
to get through this.”
Look for a new deal
or project
Obsession with getting new
customers or initiatives
Eroding customer service
Missed, low-cost new
business opportunities
“Ship is adrift”
Effective: Focus “Let’s keep doing what
we do best.”
Reinforce customer service
and existing customer
relationships
Sustain marketing efforts
Improved perception
of market position
Stronger, more profitable
customer relationships
ChangeThis
No 53.03
Info 12/12
About the Author
Lee J. Colan, Ph.D. is a leadership advisor, engaging speaker and author. Colan’s cut-through-the-clutter
insights appear regularly in a wide range of print and on-line media. Lee has written nine rapid-read books
designed for an information-rich, time-poor world. Busy leaders can finish them quickly and immediately take
action. Learn more at www.theLgroup.com.
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Born on date
This document was created on December 3, 2008 and is based on the best information available at that time.
Check here for updates.
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Engaging the Hearts
and Minds of
All Your Employees.
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Here We Go Again: Leading in Tough Times (a ChangeThis Manifesto by Lee J. Colan)

  • 1. Info 1/12 Here We Go Again Leading in Tough Times Lee J. Colan ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 2. Info 2/12 Truism: No Trend goes on forever This truism prevents complacency during good times and instills hope during tough times. I wrote this article in 2001 to address how to lead in an economic downturn. Well, 2008 seems to be singing the same song to leaders. I hope you find some timely and timeless leadership nuggets in this reprised report. Have you been wishing for the good old days lately? Or at least to rewind the economic clock 12 months? Leading a company during a slowing economy has plenty of challenges: What should you change, stop or continue doing? No graph goes up (or down) forever. The path to sustained growth is like a roller coaster ride. Your personal assumptions about change and tough times will dictate how your company will experience the roller coaster ride. In fact, the greatest opportunity for your company to create a sustainable competitive advantage is during a tough economy. Organizational change is just a concept. Organizations do not change—individuals change. If enough individuals change, then you start to reap the benefits of organizational change. Therefore, this article addresses common vs. effective responses to tough times. ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 3. Info 3/12 POWER OF ASSUMPTIONS MODEL The most important conversation you will ever have is the one with yourself. This self-talk reflects your underlying assumptions (about people, the market, your own capabilities). As an example, if market conditions require your company to change, you have three choices: stop, start or do something differently. Since most people assume that “change = loss,” leaders reflexively stop spending, hiring, training, etc. These assumptions dictate your personal response to tough times. Personal responses predispose you to certain behaviors or practices. Ultimately, your behavior has a significant and lasting impact on the organization. The employees observe your behavior and start to create their own assumptions of you and the company, and then they start a similar cycle of their own. For better or for worse, this is how your culture is perpetuated. Let’s take a look at how the current economy and our leadership practices interact in this 2x2 matrix. Focus on how your leadership behavior can affect two of these quadrants. Quadrant 2 illustrates that it is easy to be a good leader during good times—high revenue growth forgives many sins. It is harder to create a sustainable advantage because if an economy is forgiving, anyone can ride that wave, even companies with less effective leadership. In Quadrant 1, effective leadership and poor economic times offer the best opportunity for you to create sustainable distinction in the marketplace. Underlying Assumptions Leadership Behavior Organizational Impact Personal Responses ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 4. Info 4/12 LEADERSHIP PRACTICES: IMPACT ON MARKET POSITION PERSONAL RESPONSES TO CHANGE There are three common responses to change with corresponding effective responses for each one: 1. Survival vs. Opportunity 2. Control vs. Involvement 3. Panic vs. Focus Let’s examine each of these separately. 1 Sustainable Competitive Advantage 4 Lose Ground on Competition 2 Competitive Advantage 3 Potential Short-term Competitiveness LeadershipPractices Effective Good Ineffective Poor Economic Conditions for Your Business ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 5. Info 5/12 1. Survival vs. Opportunity The survival response uses as its operating assumption, “We just need to stay afloat.” The resulting leadership behaviors include: reducing headcount, decreasing employee development and controlling expenses. The organizational impacts of these leadership behaviors are employee cynicism and sacrificing the company’s long-term capacity to sustain growth. These are fear-based, defensive responses that reflect the “change = loss” paradigm. It is true that cash is king during bad times (and good times!) but avoid “majoring on the minors” by eliminating important rituals, reducing training or saving paper clips. The more effective alternative to the survival response is the opportunity response. The assump- tion that underlies the opportunity response is, “Here is an opportunity to improve our business.” This results in leadership behavior like upgrading the workforce and strategic cost cutting. Greater employee commitment and a strengthened ability to sustain growth are the outcomes. The realities of your business may require you to reduce headcount. If so, make sure that you do the right thing—from a legal, employee relations and market perception standpoint. Resist the conve- nience of an across-the-board cut and use this opportunity to get rid of your ‘C’ and ‘D’ performers. Even if you are closing a location, try to re-deploy your best performers elsewhere. The best run companies always behave like they are losing money. All of your employees should understand the most basic unit of profitability (e.g., the airlines use revenue/passenger mile). If your employees understand the drivers of your cost and revenues they can act more like owners of the business. During tough times, shift your focus from the top line to the bottom line with a close eye on inventory control, receivables and cash flow. ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 6. Info 6/12 2. Control vs. Involvement The second common response to tough times is control. This response assumes, “We know what is best for employees. They will just worry.” Resulting behaviors include leaders work in the business rather than on the business and TLM (tight-lipped management). These kind of behaviors create distrust in company leadership and an expanded organizational blind spot (weaknesses that every- one, except you, are aware of). Many companies that have previously grown over the past several years are now responding with control. Controlling management practices set them back to old ways of managing when they were a smaller company. When the leader shifts back to working in the business, rather than on the business, it predictably squelches any type of ownership behavior by employees. Studies on organizational change show that most employees do not resist change itself. Rather, they resist that unknown place between where we are now and where we will be—the Abyss. The effective alternative to control is involvement. The involvement response assumes, “We must harness all of our ideas to manage these conditions most effectively.” Leaders who take this more effective approach work on the business and solicit employee input for solutions. Naturally, these behaviors result in greater ownership behavior (what every leader wants more of) and a reduced organizational blind spot. It is important to not just make employees feel like they are involved—a common, mechanical substitute for real involvement. Remember, those who underestimate their employee’s intelligence overestimate their own. Analysis of cumulative employee attitude research shows that the biggest concern for employees is communication. However, leaders are continually frustrated that their communication efforts do ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 7. Info 7/12 not improve employees’ perceptions of company communication. Further analysis of these historical data reveals what employees want to know. It boils down to four simple questions leaders must address: 1. Where are we going? (Strategy) 2. What are we doing to get there? (Plans) 3. How can I contribute? (Roles) 4. What’s in it for me? (Rewards) Your answers to these “Fundamental Four” questions create a bridge that connects today’s possibilities to tomorrow’s results. Without this bridge you are dead in the water. With it, you have the necessary platform to fully engage your team. In today information-rich, time-poor world, it can be quite challenging to decide what to communicate to employees and what to withhold. It’s easy to say (usually to ourselves), “They don’t really need to know all that” or “My team won’t really understand” or “I don’t think they can handle that news right now.” But the truth is that leaders who underestimate the power of their employees generally overestimate their own. The effective alternative to control is involvement. The involvement response assumes, “We must harness all of our ideas to manage these conditions most effectively.” ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 8. Info 8/12 When employees don’t get answers to the Fundamental Four, they tend to fill in the blanks with their own assumptions… and their assumptions are often worst-case scenarios. This is not a reflection on the leader. It’s human nature. Therefore, beware: Unanswered questions start the silence spiral: Silence leads to Doubt, Doubt leads to Fear, Fear leads to Panic, Panic leads to Worst-Case Thinking. This spiral can take five minutes or five weeks to develop and play out, but in most cases, it happens more rapidly than we would imagine. Fill in the silence for your team by answering the Fundamental 4. For instance, if you learn about a new project in another department that won’t affect your team for a few months, tell them about it. They can start preparing or, at minimum, they won’t be caught off guard or perpetuate rumors. ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 9. Info 9/12 3. Panic vs. Focus The third and final common response to tough times is panic. The panic response assumes that “We better do something different to get through this.” This assumptions leads to a continuous eye on the next deal and an obsession with creating new initiatives. This results in eroding customer service and the “ship is adrift” syndrome. This is a classic entrepreneurial response. Look for a new deal or create another business model. The problem is that it’s five times more expensive to obtain business for a new customer than it is from an existing customer. Also, employees really want clear direction—not a plethora of new initiatives—during tough times. Focus is the effective alternative to panic. Focus assumes, “Let’s keep doing what we do best.” Leaders that respond with focus reinforce customer service and existing customer relationships, and they sustain their marketing efforts. This results in improved perception of market position and stronger, more profitable customer relationships (again, what every leader wants more of). Focus is the effective alternative to panic. Focus assumes, “Let’s keep doing what we do best.” ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 10. Info 10/12 Put your resources where you are strongest (core competency). It is tempting to try to shore up your weak areas during tough times. However, unless those areas are strategic, you will just be throwing good money after bad. Think about this: since some approximation of the 80/20 Rule exists in almost all systems, we can safely infer that it also exists in your business. This means that the most profitable 1/5 of your company is 16 times more profitable than the remaining 4/5. Needless to say, you should regularly look at your most/least profitable sales people, products, service lines, divisions etc. Focus on the “vital few”—the 20 percent that has the greatest impact. Do not only rely on your instincts to identify your vital few—use data to determine the truth about your team’s perfor- mance. Look at customers, services, products, processes and people to find the 20 percent that drive the majority of your productivity, activity, waste, conflict or down time. In Good Times and in Bad Many of the leadership practices that we suggest under “Effective Responses” should be done all of the time. For example, watching your expenses is like cleaning your house—you always have to do it. Regardless of where your company is on the economic roller coaster, you should consider the organizational impact of your own personal assumptions and leadership behavior. We led our way out of the 2001 downturn, and we will do it again. First, let’s get to work! On the following page is a table that summarizes each personal response to change. ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 11. Info 11/12 Response Assumptions Leadership Behavior Organizational Impact Common: Survival “We just need to stay afloat.” Eliminate headcount Decrease employee development Control expenses Employee cynicism Sacrifice long-term capacity to sustain growth Effective: Opportunity “Here is an opportunity to improve our business.” Upgrade workforce Strategic cost cutting Committed employees Strengthened ability to sustain growth Common: Control “We know what is best for employees. They will just worry.” Work in the business TLM (Tight-lipped management) Distrust Expanded organizational blind spot Effective: Involvement “We must harness all of our ideas to manage these times most effectively.” Work on the business Solicit employee input for solutions Ownership behavior Reduced organizational blind spot Common: Panic “We better do something different to get through this.” Look for a new deal or project Obsession with getting new customers or initiatives Eroding customer service Missed, low-cost new business opportunities “Ship is adrift” Effective: Focus “Let’s keep doing what we do best.” Reinforce customer service and existing customer relationships Sustain marketing efforts Improved perception of market position Stronger, more profitable customer relationships ChangeThis No 53.03
  • 12. Info 12/12 About the Author Lee J. Colan, Ph.D. is a leadership advisor, engaging speaker and author. Colan’s cut-through-the-clutter insights appear regularly in a wide range of print and on-line media. Lee has written nine rapid-read books designed for an information-rich, time-poor world. Busy leaders can finish them quickly and immediately take action. Learn more at www.theLgroup.com. send this Pass along a copy of this manifesto to others. Subscribe Sign up for our free e-newsletter to learn about our latest manifestos as soon as they are available. Born on date This document was created on December 3, 2008 and is based on the best information available at that time. Check here for updates. info buy the book Get more details or buy a copy of Lee J. Colan’s Engaging the Hearts and Minds of All Your Employees. ABOUT CHANGETHIS ChangeThis is a vehicle, not a publisher. We make it easy for big ideas to spread. While the authors we work with are responsible for their own work, they don’t necessarily agree with everything available in ChangeThis format. But you knew that already. ChangeThis is supported by the love and tender care of 800-CEO-READ. Visit us at 800-CEO-READ or at our daily blog. Copyright info The copyright of this work belongs to the author, who is solely responsible for the content. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial- NoDerivs License. To view a copy of this license, visit Creative Commons or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA. Cover image from iStockphoto® WHAT YOU CAN DO You are given the unlimited right to print this manifesto and to distribute it electronically (via email, your website, or any other means). You can print out pages and put them in your favorite coffee shop’s windows or your doctor’s waiting room. You can transcribe the author’s words onto the sidewalk, or you can hand out copies to everyone you meet. You may not alter this manifesto in any way, though, and you may not charge for it. ChangeThis No 53.03