Leading Through the Turbulence

Posted by GO Productivity

July 25, 2019


There are but four words needed to capture what’s going on in the Canadian business environment: change, complexity, uncertainty, fear.  There are two words, though, on which we need to focus during even the darkest of days that will get us over the hump and into the future: hope and innovation.

The ups and downs of a cyclical economy are not foreign to Canada or Canadian business, but the highs are getting higher, the lows are getting lower, and the speed and frequency of the travel between the extremes is exponentially increasing. Companies continually need to navigate through these uncertain and challenging economic times. This can result in organizational changes, layoffs, and mergers and acquisitions. It can also provide a leader with opportunities to work on inefficiencies and to be more innovative to not only survive a downturn, but to emerge a stronger competitor when economic conditions improve.

The biggest challenge with all of this is to know how to come alongside your people to help them navigate through the change – through the crisis – and help them take control of their circumstances. It’s about inspiring people’s hearts and minds, giving them hope and reassurance, and not wasting a perfectly good crisis (a.k.a. one of the best drivers of innovation we know).

With all of this, what’s a leader to do?

If there is anything we’ve learned, it’s that uncertainty is a constant. You’ve got to be prepared to lead when the winds of change howl at your door. Research suggests that the process of change can bring stress to even the strongest organization. Leaders will struggle, and so will the people they are trying to lead.

Agents of change, whether the CEO or a young, new employee, often feel like “powerless leaders” because changing people’s minds is rarely easy. As Machiavelli has pointed out, “… there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.” Therefore, some leaders may think it is easier to demand that a change happens.  They may drive it from the top without significant across-the-board participation. While this may appear to be faster than a grassroots, emergent effort, it’s likely to result in disgruntled compliance, rather than involvement and satisfaction among the individuals the leader is attempting to change.  Consider it corporate suicide for almost any business.

A 2013 survey of global senior executives by the Katzenbach Center reveals that the success rate of major change initiatives is only 54 percent.

According to a superb article in strategy+business by organizational change experts DeAnne Aguirre and Micah Alpern, there are three hurdles that usually get in the way:

  1. So-called “change fatigue,” that is, the pressure of making too many changes in too little time.
  1. A loss of faith in the initial impetus for the changes, whether driven by crisis or not. This usually occurs when results come too slowly.
  1. Not enough input from employees below the senior management level. As a result, the actual executors of the changes (who are rarely the high-ranking executives) don’t have enough ownership in the initiatives they’re supposed to be leading.

Here are a few tips to help you lead through constant change, especially during an economic downtime:

  1. Check your attitude – In times of change and crisis, your employees will often look to you for signals of “good” or “bad.”  How you carry yourself, as well as what and how you say things is incredibly important.  Staying positive and calm will prevent organizational panic, which can lead to sector-wide and economy-wide panic.
  2. Acknowledge the current situation – Change and uncertainty needs to be tackled with calm and honesty.  It’s important to acknowledge the current situation and its impacts to the people and company.  Be honest to your team in what you can do and/or say.  This is your time to set the tone of what they can expect from you – their leader.
  3. Establish clear priorities – Ambiguity can be a killer during change.  Establishing clear and concise priorities and objectives as quickly as possible, will help force the focus and continued productivity.
  4. Increase communication efforts – Communication is always important.  During change and crisis, it’s too easy to “go dark” on your people.  Decisions are being made quickly, things are in a state of flux, and rumors may run rampant.  Setting up a communications channel, then “ramping-up” the frequency, will ensure people are getting the information they need.  It also clears up any confusion and misinformation floating around.
  5. Clarify everyone’s job –  Uncertainty = confusion and fear!  Taking the time to reiterate each person’s job (e.g., responsibilities, goals, expectations, etc.) is the fastest way back to individual productivity.  Be specific, act quickly, and take the time to answer questions.
  6. Stabilize your top players – People become nervous and fearful when they are confronted with uncertainly and change.  As a result, you will have people who were not necessarily looking for a new job start to put out feelers.  Typically, it will be your top players (your A-team) who most likely get picked-up first.  As a leader, you want to make sure you stabilize your top talent as much as possible.  Whether they show signs of leaving or not, it’s worth the time to show some extra love and attention.
  7. Stay involved – Staying close to the tactical action, as well as following-up on delegated items, will help keep individuals focused on the tasks at hand.
  8. Give your people opportunity – When people are busy, there is less time to worry.  This is an opportunity to challenge your people to work smarter or in a more collaborative style.  As you challenge your team, you will find out who will step-up and could be your future stars.
  9. Give your customers extra love – During times of organizational change (especially during mergers and acquisitions) and crisis, your customer base can become vulnerable.  Remind yourself and your team that the reason you are here is because of your customers.  Be a strong advocate internally and externally to protect your customer base.  Invest in customer communications.
  10. Motivate, motivate, motivate – At the end of the day, uncertainty and change is hard.  We all know it and do our best to navigate through it.  As a leader, people look to you.  Now is the time to be a cheerleader, bring on the positive attitude for all to see.  This is when you need to lead!

If you would like extra support on fine-tuning your leadership strategy, consider contacting us for leadership coaching customized to your needs. GO Productivity also encourages adding the element of Lean Six Sigma into the leadership strategy by having certain leaders trained in Lean Six Sigma which provides a foundation and structure to make data-based decisions and drive continuous improvement among their team. 

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