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by James A. DeSena
How does a leader stay focused and maintain certainty and his or her bearings during a time of great duress?
How does a leader keep people focused on business and support them when changes are needed?
were two of the questions executives from a number of leading companies
explored during a recent teleconference call moderated by Jim DeSena, CSP,
speaker and author of salesleaders.com. With the events of September and
the economic consequences stemming from them, the challenges facing people
in leadership positions changed dramatically. Conclusions from these
executives emerged in seven key areas:
Communicate more with employees.
Employees always need good and frequent communication. During times of
duress, plan on at least double whatever communication you normally do. The
larger the organization, the more that communication needs to be planned.
Whether you work in a small or large organization, it is beneficial to walk
around and find out what is going on in your immediate area. With a large,
national organization, senior executives should be listening to employees
and then sending a message that communicates understanding of employee
concerns, even if they are not certain what the future may hold. Each
manager should strive to create a "small company feel," in his or
Respond, don't react.
Overreacting causes more stress, more uncertainty.
Controlling the urge to do something irrational becomes paramount. Thinking
about what's important for employees is more productive than what's
important to the executive. One executive said, "People ask me what's
next. Nothing is next. But I can't guarantee it." "It's nice to
ride the wave of success when things are doing well. Now, we are being
tested." People need faith
that things will turn out ok. They look to their leaders to remain calm,
composed and compassionate. (Witness Mayor Guiliani.)
Give people an outlet. In times of
extraordinary stress, people need someone to listen to them. They need to
express themselves, to channel their emotions. They also need moments when
they can relax and get away from the reality. One executive said he goes to
remote locations when employees working odd hours. He brings
"comfort" foods. He might spontaneously say, "Let's go to a
hockey game." Another executive was closing one office and moving some
of the people to another. He said people felt displaced. Then one of the
employees stood up and announced, "we're a team and we are going to
make this happen." That one pronouncement changed their outlook from
one of pessimism to one of hope. A consultant who worked on a pro bono
project to estimate the economic effects of 911 on NYC said of his work,
""This project personally gave me a way to channel the grief I
felt, the sadness I felt, the overwhelming sense of lack of control about
the world we live."
Be extra empathetic.
It's hard to understand what people in other parts of the country are
experiencing. People don't experience the same stressors. It's not the same
if you're not in Washington, D.C. or New York.
One of the greatest qualities a leader can bring to bear in times of
duress is the quality of empathy. Executives need to balance between their
desire to get people back to work and the workers need to express their
concerns. Too little empathy on the part of an executive can destroy
employee loyalty in an instant and hopes for a quick return to a productive
work environment will not materialize. On the other hand, it is important to
get to a point where people can get focused again on work, recognizing that
each employee is different. One executive from a national childcare company
noted, "There isn't one strategy. There are many strategies." She
understood how different each employee could be.
Be visible. "I can't be there all
the time, even when I want to, but I don't want the image that he is hiding
in his office." Employees want to see their leaders. Seeing them raises
their spirits and confidence. A woman who is the president of a chamber of
commerce said that when she was in HR she would "walk through the
facility, seeing people personally, on both shifts. People felt they had a
Leaders need to be ready to quickly change their thinking and actions
to fit the circumstances. (How can we expect employees to be adaptable if
we're not?) Leaders can admit that sometimes, there aren't quick good
answers to tough problems. But
leaders believe they will determine the best course of action given the
options, "seeing good responses when it is hard to have any response at
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