Problem or Opportunity – The Leader’s Choice

“We are all continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems” – John W Gardner. How does the leader discover the truth of that statement today? As the economic recession seems to do a “I’m here now- I’m not here now”, as stories of doom and gloom are interspersed with sprinklings of good news, how does the leader make a difference in her organisational context? How does the leader be a leader when demand is falling, when the euro crisis somewhere is threatening to cause a problem everywhere, when key team mates are thinking of moving on? It begins with a leader seeing the opportunity that a time like this could present.

Here are some suggested places to start.

1. It is a time for growth.
It is often what organisations and people do in the middle of a crisis that separates the good from the great. “A rising tide lifts all boats”, so good times are less a barometer of the truly sustainable organisations; teams; products. It is when an organisation is stretched that real growth often happens. As with our personal lives when we look back, we loved the good times; but it was the tough times that really helped us grow.

This isn’t a masochistic recommendation to open loving arms to tough times. But perhaps there is an invitation to the leader to be open to the growth that a crisis can create for her organisation. To seize the chance to view the heavy lifting of a crisis as the time when “organisational muscle” is really built and strengthened.

It is imperative for the leader to make time to coach and mentor, even more in these times than when everything was running well.

This could apply to any part of the organisational anatomy – the way it sells, the way it buys, the way it trains, the way it produces. Seeing it is the first step in making that growth a reality. It will require the leader and her team to come together and make deliberate decisions about the areas where this growth can be maximised. It will involve a meticulous attention to detail as the “learnings” unfold. At this point a fresh pair of eyes helps – a new employee, an external board member, an unhappy customer.

A commitment to listening is key. Because tougher questions get inevitably asked in the middle of a crisis, the answers often end up growing capability and spawning innovation. It is for the leader to help her organisation see this opportunity. Be open to the positives that can emerge from it and gear up to make the best of it.

2. It is a time to find and grow leaders.
There is no better time to look for leaders than in the middle of a crisis. Somehow a crisis has that ability to sift the wheat from the chaff. To understand who among your people handles pressure well. To allow the “marathoners” to stand out from a crowd of “sprinters”. To appreciate the ones who stay creative and innovative.

People come through with qualities that the good times may have hidden. So it is important for a leader to keep his eyes open extra wide at this time. It is in the dark that the jewels shine in the torchlight of a leader’s gaze. It’s an opportunity lost for a leader so blinded by the darkness that she dares not look. So as teams go to work the leader watches for the ones willing to step up; willing to shoulder the extra burden; willing to watch out for the rest of the team; willing to have a crack at winning rather than whining. Every business challenge then becomes fertile soil in which the seeds of leadership are sowed. Seeds that will sprout and give fruit when the sun and rain return. It is imperative for the leader to make time to coach and mentor, even more in these times than when everything was running well. It is essential to provide the support and environment for these leaders to be found and nurtured.

3. It is a time to stress test the ship.
It is in a storm that a captain realises which parts of his ship are creaking. So whether these are processes; systems; training programmes; technology; a crisis allows these to be tested to their limit to discover flaws and weaknesses that can then be quickly fixed. As attrition hits in a crisis, teams realise how person- dependent some processes are and this sparks a project to clean up documentation and improve automation. A marketing plan that had worked fine in the “good times” now stands exposed with rough edges that the team can work on smoothening out. Candidates that poured through the recruitment portal now slow to a trickle and the team gets cracking on reinventing the “employer brand”.

It is also a time to spot the Zimbabwean billionaires. For those who weren’t following the state of the Zimbabwean economy during the crisis, a billion Zimbabwean dollars was worth about 4 US dollars. Who or which are the Zimbabwean billionaires that the organisation has built up over years of good times? Has budget piled up on non-essentials? Have “superstars” earned the label without the underlying hard work and consistency required? As Arnold Toynbee once put it “Nothing fails like success”- so looking afresh at the things that once worked well is worth the effort.

4. It is a time to maintain perspective.
It is especially difficult to do this when everywhere one turns, one encounters bad news. I wonder if we could find an island that had no TV news channels to turn to, no newspapers to read, no seminars on “how to handle a recession” to attend – how would that island economy fare? Perhaps life goes on as before, perhaps the pangs of recession are not as badly felt, perhaps the vicious cycle of bad news perpetuating further reasons for bad news has not kicked in.

The leader could draw some lessons from this fictitious (hopefully not!) island. In the middle of the challenges that the organisation faces, the leader needs to help her team focus on what is real and avoid getting distracted or discouraged by what is unreal. Don’t get me wrong. There are some ‘real” things wrong that would doubtless have an impact on organisations. It would be naive to say that all is well when the organisation is experiencing very real pains. The leader would quickly lose credibility if that were her message. The leader must acknowledge reality but must also avoid the “dancing with ghosts” that such times can often lead to.

Sizing the problem is important. “We are losing all our customers” is different from “two of our customers have decided not to renew their contracts in four months’ time. They firmly believe they need our services and there is the possibility that as the crunch on their costs eases, they would come back. Could a team work on ideas to support them in additional ways through the next four months?” As someone once put it, we need to remain “pessimists of the intellect but optimists of the will”. The suggestion is not to defy gravity, but to retain the team’s confidence in itself to sprout wings. Good news comes down the stairs, bad news jumps out of the window and it will pay for the leader to remind her team of that.

As pressure on the bottom-line increases, something has got to give. But choosing what to give, often reflects the character of the organisation and its leader and the strength of its belief in its mission.

5. It is a time to stay focused on the fundamentals.
That some things will need to be cut goes without saying. As pressure on the bottom-line increases, something has got to give. But choosing what to give, often reflects the character of the organisation and its leader and the strength of its belief in its mission. Is training cut? Are marketing budgets pulled back? Is customer support compromised? Is quality shaved a bit? People remember.

Whether customers or employees or suppliers – the true test of our relationship with them is when the going is tough. That loyalty of purpose is rewarded many fold when the good times return. This is a time to walk the talk; to reiterate that the mission and goals are not mercenary. Across the world we have had situations of companies going for the inevitable lay-offs and others who have chosen to re-skill and redeploy employees, take across the board salary cuts but avoid the lay-offs. So a crisis presents an opportunity for the leader to raise the banner anew on the values the team stands for. It is a time when the team sees such banners with a clarity that good times often ill afford.

6. It is a time to explore new opportunities.
Crisis or no crisis, opportunity abounds. With electricity ubiquitous who’d say candles are needed? Yet in the US, candles are, an over 2.4 billion dollar a year business. That is some light in the darkness! The leader has the chance to pose the questions? What else are we missing out on? What strengths do we have that we could use in a different way? What efficiencies can be had if we did things a different way.

Companies that have got away with calling themselves “global” just because they have flags on different parts of the office wall map, have an opportunity to explore what could happen if they truly became global. Could the Australia office help the UK on a project? Could a team with available capacity in France help avert a missed deadline penalty that the Canada office is facing? Could a marketing campaign that worked well be reused with little new investment in a different market? Often as doors shut, new ones open and the leader must help the team discover these opening doors. As Paul Polman, the game changing CEO of Unilever, put it in one of his first interviews after taking over, “never waste a good crisis…it’s an ideal chance to galvanize a little bit more the change that we still need to be truly competitive”.

Therefore the biggest challenge the leader can throw his team, is to begin by looking at the challenges of the time in a new way, inspiring the organisation to put on a fresh pair of spectacles. One leader who brought the points we’ve discussed, together for himself and his organisation was Steve Jobs. From every crisis he seemed to bounce back stronger. Returning to Apple he literally used the slide it was on as the speed ramp to accelerate the organisation to the high it rides on today. Even though he is no longer around he has left these valuable lessons behind.

The advantage the leader has as she attempts to tread this path, is that she faces an organisation and team more willing to listen, more willing to change, more willing to try a different way. While the good times may have seen leaders build their reputations and results, there is no more important time for a leader to lead from the front than now. As Albert Schweitzer put it “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

Leo Fernandez is CEO and Co-Founder of TalentEase Pte Ltd. Leo is passionate about making a difference. With 18 years of leadership experience, Leo has spent his career bringing together high-performance talent, crafting winning partnerships with clients and developing solutions for business change. Prior to founding TalentEase, Leo was a Partner with Accenture, based at Singapore.He has an abiding interest in the Asia Pacific region and in showcasing it as the region to drive global innovation and step change. His current projects involve education and micro-entrepreneurship. He has a Bachelor’s in Economics and a Master’s in Business Administration. He currently splits his time between Singapore and India.

He can be reached at leo.fernandez@TalentEase.com.

This article first appeared in the July 2011 issue of HR Matters Magazine. Copyright HR Matters Magazine. All rights reserved. No part of these article, either text or image may be used or reproduced with express written permission from HR Matters Magazine. For copies of this article, to link online or to order reprints, please contact editor@hr-matters.info. For more info, please visit http://www.hr-matters.info.