I suspect that most readers will agree that examples of management excellence, high performance and great leadership are not the topics dominating the news in this emerging “we’ve never seen anything like this before” economy.  Instead, we are fed a constant stream of downward revisions, requests for bailout and examples of management failure of “someone should go to jail”   Whole sectors are crashing, great old brands are on the brink of fading into the history books and recently great businesses are floundering.

Contrast this current phase with the other extreme of recent memory, the dotcom bubble of the late 90’s, when the laws of physics were upturned, profits didn’t count, and it was all about clicks and eyeballs.  Everyone knew someone that was a gazillionaire and massive amounts of paper wealth came into existence overnight.  And then disappeared.  A few firms like Amazon, eBay and Google ultimately emerged from the carnage following the bust, to play major roles in a changed world.  Ironically, this changed world looked more like what we knew than what had been professed by temporary pundits feasting on the momentary gullibility of the masses.

The point.  It’s easy to ride with the herd in boom and bust periods.  It takes no management skill whatsoever to spend a fortune building up clicks and it definitely takes no skill to slash budgets, cut headcount, freeze programs and hunker down and wait out the storm.

It does take remarkable management courage and skill to run against the crowd and conventional wisdom by investing in strategic initiatives and talent during tough times and resisting the temptation to chase mythical fortunes during boom times.  Leveraging adversity to stimulate creativity and rethink business models, refocus on customers and look everywhere for innovation that will create value is counter-intuitive to the “flight” response that so many firms are exhibiting.  This counter-intuitive nature is also the hallmark of great management and great managers.

Deming dared to call U.S. manufacturing on the carpet and predict their ultimate suicide if they ignored quality during a time when quality got in the way of volume and profits.  Drucker spent a lifetime teaching managers the rules of management excellence.  Based on recent news, most of us forgot to listen.

You face the choice everyday to stay with the herd or dare to do something different in pursuit of management excellence.  In case you are looking for some thought-starters on counter-intuitive ideas, consider these:

  • Resist the temptation during tough times to make all of the “hard calls” by yourself.  Talk with and involve your employees in decision-making and idea generation.  They are just as concerned as you are about their survival and they want to help.
  • Don’t shred your strategic plan because “everything has changed.”  It’s great to challenge your assumptions or as Ayn Rand often said, “Check your premises.”   There may be new or more opportunity than you imagined, and the plan may need revision, but don’t scuttle it based on fear.
  • Invest in your talent now.  While you may be culling the herd of poor performers, you should also be investing in building the leadership and strategic thinking skills of your workforce.  If this ends, they will propel you to new heights, and if this economic environment lingers, they will save your skin.  Either way, you need to invest.
  • Your customers are as perplexed and worried as you.  It’s time to seek nontraditional relationships with key customers and partners.  These relationships include joint-strategic planning, joint brainstorming and true partnering solutions that transcend the traditional press-release relationship.
  • Take a sledgehammer to internal silo walls.  The dysfunction inherent in most sales and marketing or marketing and engineering relationships is significant enough to sink your ship.

The bottom-line for now:

It’s an outstanding time for great leaders to stand up and be heard, and it is an outstanding time to focus on excellence in management.  It starts by checking your conventional wisdom at the door.  Go visit a customer, ask questions and listen.  Do the same with your employees.  And then do something that creates value versus something that reduces your chances of creating value.  Your actions may just start a revolution.