Monday, March 2, 2009

Riding Out The Storm

This article entitled "Riding Out The Storm" is from my good friend, Pat Nichols, a transition management consultant in the Washington D.C. area.

"Many organizations around the world, for-profit and non, will not survive the current economic storm. Some of those that do not will be of substantial size and repute. Many will be doing good work. All will employ good people whose lives will be painfully disrupted.

Some will die because decisions already made left them too vulnerable to survive, no matter what their leaders do in response to the crisis (Countrywide Financial and some of the nonprofits who invested with Bernard Madoff are examples). More, however, will have some chance of survival and that survival will rest upon the wit and wisdom of their leadership.

Having led or advised nearly 20 organizations through major, often life threatening transitions, I would like to offer four observations on the kind of “transition leadership” that might help other organizations survive. (I will discuss two here and two in a subsequent memo.) These thoughts, I suspect, transcend the sectors, though they will require adaptations to each.

Put the mission first: First, transition leadership requires that we put the mission first, always first, building a renewed sense of teamwork around the values it implies. People live and work, in large part, for meaning and for values; they work to add significance to their lives. Some, sadly, find that significance largely from the status that money brings and the adornments it can provide. Most, I am convinced, do not; or would not if their leaders were offering a sufficient opportunity to find broader social or spiritual value in their work.

Creating such meaning is, on the surface, easier for a civic sector and government organizations, to which people are drawn explicitly by mission. However, I would predict that for-profits that engender a sense of mission (I think immediately of Southwest Airlines and Apple Computer) will perform better, on average, than their more mercenary competitors.

One challenge for nonprofits, on the other hand, is remembering that, when tough choices must be made, mission should triumph even over loyalty to colleagues. People work to serve the mission, not to have the mission serve them; so the organization must sometimes face the severing of important, and personal, ties in order to advance that mission.

Character and integrity: Second, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of character and integrity, listening to and valuing diverse perspectives and talents. Some of these standards will vary with the values of the organization. (Teach for America or a biotech company will value experimentation and risk taking more than a hospital or an accounting firm). Some, though, will have broad application in a crisis. For instance:

· Be transparent and engage everyone—Crises are inherently unsettling. Leadership cannot guarantee an outcome. What we can do is ensure that information and participation are widely shared.

· Move quickly but systematically—In the absence of a known destination there is comfort in knowing how we will chart it and that no time is being wasted.

· Be hopeful in style and rigorous in analysis—This is a very difficult balance to strike. As leaders we must both set a hopeful tone and acknowledge, to others, and ourselves the magnitude of the challenge. To do otherwise undermines our credibility at the time we need it most.

· Live with ambiguity, acknowledge uncertainty—The need to acknowledge uncertainty doesn’t end with the description of the situation, it extends to the limitations of the choices we make. In crises, especially, we will be acting on incomplete and imperfect information. We will make assumptions and decisions that will prove mistaken. Acknowledging this is crucial not only to our credibility but to our ability to see our mistakes and adjust our course.

· Let it hurt; salve the hurt of others—As leaders in a crisis we must make decisions that are painful to us and to our colleagues. Those decisions should be painful to us. It is a mark of our caring about our colleagues. We must focus our attention on making and explaining them in ways that are sensitive and responsible.

The other two elements of transition leadership are that the organization should move forcefully and, at the same time, experimentally and that we share and celebrate success. I will soon send a second dispatch offering further thoughts on these elements.

In the meantime, best wishes to your organization in remaining sea worthy. "
Well said, Pat!

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