The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
Businesses of all sizes, shapes and ages run into rough patches. Rapid growth, disruptive competitors or technologies, regulatory changes or the end of the road for well-worn strategies are all potential culprits in the move from success to struggle. It’s critical at this point for a firm’s leaders and managers to react carefully and appropriately in this unfamiliar terrain or they risk moving quickly from flail to fail.
The “Flailure” Effect:
Whether the stimuli are positive promoting rapid growth or negative and threatening financial well-being, firms and management teams accustomed to a consistent rhythm and cycle to their business are often caught off-guard and unprepared to process and respond to sudden change. The initial symptoms include a rash of problems as conventional approaches and systems are stressed and teams are challenged to respond in ways they’re not accustomed to around issues that feel foreign.
It’s this point where the new stressors invite widespread anxiety to the corporate party. Tempers flare, fingers point and if left unchecked, dysfunctional conflict sets up camp. In response, well-intended managers scurry around settling disputes and putting out fires…often feeling like they are steadily losing ground against the onslaught of issues.
Obviously, these circumstances call for strong leadership, and it’s often the wrong kind of strong leadership (and decisions) on organization structure, strategy and key leadership roles that finally amplifies flail and moves the firm steadily towards fail. It becomes Flailure.
5 Starter Ideas to Help You Steer Clear of Flailure:
1. Share the Real Situation With the Organization. Your instinct is to mask the problems. That’s wrong. Everyone senses when things are going katty-wampus and the problem is magnified many times over when no one at the top is sharing the straight story. Context is King…and good people long accustomed to success, want to be part of the solution…not kept in the dark. But first, they need to understand the scale and scope of the challenges before they can contribute their energy and gray matter.
2. Get the Middle Involved. Your mid-level managers are involved in all of the work of the business and they are the source of most daily decisions. Additionally, they deal with every headache and they see the stressors clearly…in contrast to a firm’s senior leaders who are by the nature of their role removed from the daily heavy lifting. You need them on your side and active in seeking solutions. You need your mid-level managers engaged with each other and comfortable in translating front-line realities into unified ideas and actions. In addition to serving as the execution layer around fixes and changes, these people are the critical translation layer in helping a firm’s senior leaders gauge the progress and outcomes with new programs and strategies. (For those of you who pillaged and eradicated your mid-level management layer in the name of efficiency, you’re exposed here.)
3. Mind the Intersections. Our tendency is to hunker down in our functional silos, yet most issues in times of significant change involve hand-offs and collaboration and many of the problems and opportunities occur where processes and functions intersect. Building on the prior point, your mid-level managers are critical to gaining visibility into the issues and bringing the resources to bear to change processes and monitor results. Pay particular attention to gauging and improving the process work around the intersections. (Of course, the functional issues must be addressed as well.)
4. Build In Stress Relief. Yes, this one is lighter…and I know that I personally don’t do “light” very well, but I respect its power and importance. No one and no team does their best work under sustained periods of high stress. The stress becomes toxic to individuals (health, well-being) and relationships. The culture becomes sick. It helps to find ways to lighten the mood and shift the focus at least on a social level for moments in time during periods of tension. One leader I observed set up a bowling league and in spite of the behind the scenes laughs at a perceived trivial and unrelated activity at the wrong time, the people learned to relax, compete and have fun together every other week…taking the edge off just a bit. Howard Schultz famously took 10,000 managers to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to offer help rebuilding and then to meet and share frank talk on the downturn at Starbucks. He offered (I paraphrase): if we didn’t have New Orleans, we might not be here. Creating an opportunity to blow off steam and allow people to rediscover their human side is never a bad thing.
5. Senior Leaders… Avoid the Easy Temptations and Focus on Clarifying Direction. Our knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t working is to restructure…people, teams and the overall organization. We run around rearranging deck chairs and walls and we don’t have a set design or blueprint. Structural change won’t compensate for a failed or failing strategy and identifying a scapegoat for the problems and changing out functional leadership definitely won’t cure the disease. The same goes for unexpected growth. If it was accidental…this happy outcome is every bit as serious as the challenges of disruption. Get your arms around the strategy and then begin sorting through the best way to organize to leverage the opportunity. Remember, the directional decisions come first and this is where senior leadership must earn its keep.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
This is a big hairy topic and it’s one that I’ve observed in clients or prior employers over time. If you’ve lived through this, you recognize the symptoms and too often as an employee or manager, you feel helpless to stem the tide or make a productive difference. Fight this attitude and resist the temptation for knee jerk reactions. Communicate with your peers…have the confidence to surface the problems and propose ideas. Find opportunities to let the teams blow off steam. Your ability to galvanize the collective gray matter of your team members, peers and colleagues is absolutely essential for avoiding flailure, and you need their hearts and minds in the process.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.