Many of the world’s greatest companies were born in major downturns, and others adapted and found new ways to drive business – fun fact, P&G invented soap operas as a marketing strategy during the Great Depression. How you show up now as a leader will shape the path your business takes.
Identifying confusion and turning it into clarity takes time and practice, but here are some steps to quickly activate you and your team’s clarity.
1. Companies with a compelling “why” will beat those without it
It is leadership’s responsibility to set the tone and identify the “why” for their teams. Why must the teams pull together? Why will this be your company’s finest hour? It’s more important for this “why” to be authentic rather than aspirational. If your company’s vision is to become the biggest player in X market, start there. If your vision is to help your customers have better lives in Y way, start there. Managers are then responsible for taking the enterprise “why” and turning it into a personal “why” for each of their people.
What matters is orienting everyone back to your reason for continuing to work together, as that is what will keep you together through hard times, and open people’s eyes to the opportunities that exist. If you as a leader are unable to connect to the bigger “why” for your business, invest some time in sensemaking for yourself or elevate someone who can.
2. Companies that win hold the premise that every problem is an opportunity
Many companies that survive market downturns are the ones that treat it as an opportunity to improve: to serve their customers and communities in new ways, to deliver products and services that take challenging environments into account. Those that don’t – the ones that focus on how not to lose – often find themselves in a downward spiral of cost-cutting, fear, lower productivity, and more cost-cutting.
You need to believe that there is an opportunity in the chaos. If you don’t, identify someone who does, and have the humility to let them show up as a leader in this way. Or ask others to share their ideas for how to make the most of this environment and come out stronger on the other side.
3. People also need the right “what” beyond a good “why”
Now is the time to be crystal clear about what is most essential for everyone to focus on and deliver. Your people need to know where their time and attention should go, while everything swirls around them. As a leader you’ll need to make some hard choices, quickly, about what’s essential for driving your business. If you’re expecting your teams to do something different, or focus on something new, that message needs to come across loud and clear.
4. People need the means to discover the opportunity
People’s work needs to matter in the current environment, and they need to understand how they are helping to uncover opportunities to meet the market. If they work in customer service, it’s time to amp up their empathy to understand what their customers need. If they work in product design, it’s time to think about what existing features can be redesigned to meet a new set of market needs. If they work in finance, it’s time to stretch their thinking around liquidity management.
This is a chance for everyone to step up. Whether they can will be influenced by how well you, as their manager, help them do so. If the first responsibility of management is to connect to an individual’s purpose, then the second is to connect that individual’s talent to their opportunity.
5. Be vigilant about clarifying operating principles and decision-making lines
A change in market conditions can render your best-laid plans obsolete. What matters is ensuring that as things change, the people around you stay in sync. Put extra attention towards keeping everyone on the same page. Who makes what calls? Who is responsible for what areas? What are the key principles to follow for how you will prioritize? As a leader you can solicit input on these areas, but if you wait for consensus from confused people, it will be too late. Get clear about what’s important and who can make what calls, and communicate those guidelines often.
6. Double down when you find an opportunity that works
Think of your company as an opportunity-surfacing machine. Call it out when your people find ways to make things better, to serve your customers more fully, to help each other shine… First, identify how those actions connect to the company’s vision, as a reminder for why you’re doing it. And then celebrate! Spotlight your heroes and demonstrate what good looks like. Bet your resources on ways of creating value that are aligned with the changing environment.
Reinforce the steps above as a continuous loop, constantly clarifying your “whys” and tying the “how” and “what” back to them. Here are some reflection questions you can use to get started.
- What is your organization’s essential value proposition?
- What is most essential to delivering on that value proposition under the current circumstances?
- What do the key people in your organization need to deliver to support that value proposition?
- Where do you believe there may be opportunities to support that value proposition going forward?