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Leadership Lessons For Uncertain Times – Lessons For Leaders From We Are Marshall
movie We are marshals Tells the story of the rebuilding of the Marshall University football program after a tragic plane crash in 1970 that killed nearly the entire team and coaching staff. The university president came close to suspending the program after students and the community pushed for a rebuild. Matthew McConaughey plays a coach who is brought in to rebuild the program.
In one scene in the film, McConaughey throws out the old playbook and creates a new offensive scheme. He realizes that the playbook is designed for a different time and a different team with a different skill set. His current team needs a different approach to succeed, as they are clearly failing using the old playbook. As a coach, he makes quick decisions and quickly implements a new playbook that immediately begins to build the team’s confidence. It takes a few games for the team to get it, but they eventually win again. While Marshall’s story is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of tragedy, the scene also holds a great lesson for leaders in today’s uncertain environment. If the environment has changed and we are going to be successful, it means that the old behavior will no longer work. If you are a leader, you must do more than project a vision or rally the troops with a motivational speech. You must identify what new behaviors are needed and help your team learn those new behaviors as quickly as possible. Over the past few months, I’ve heard leaders at many different companies make the bold proclamation that “failure is not an option.” After listening to this message, do you feel your morale, confidence, and optimism improve? Do you feel good about your company’s prospects? Neither do I. Here are four reasons why this approach is a big mistake:
- First, it is intellectually dishonest, so no one believes it. Failure is indeed a possible outcome. This statement is intended to reassure employees that the business will survive and the employees will be fine, but this may not be true. Failure may not be a possible outcome, and it is certainly not a desirable outcome, but it is within the realm of possibility.
- Second, it insults the intelligence of your employees. Why go to all the effort and expense to recruit knowledgeable workers who are perceived as highly intelligent, but then treated like idiots? Smart people understand that uncertainty exists. To pretend otherwise is insulting.
- Third, because this statement is often made with great confidence and arrogance, it shuts down meaningful dialogue. This view suggests that we will win with the absolute will of the leader. The leader is really trying to have the final word on the matter by saying “failure is not an option”. The leader is clearly tired of dealing with issues and people really prefer to get back to work.
- Fourthly, this statement absolves employees from liability. Taking the weight of the option off the table, it puts it all on the leader’s shoulders. This approach is the exact opposite of empowerment and actually increases stress among employees. Stress occurs in high-demand, low-control situations and when people make increasing demands, without giving them a reason to believe they have control, it doesn’t work.
So how leaders can use the lessons We are marshals To handle financial uncertainty and anxiety more effectively?
- Acknowledge the pain, frustration, and fear of the situation.Although a business failure or job loss is not as life or death as a Marshall tragedy, it is extremely painful. Recognize that employees are wondering about their future, but the solution is not to sit in fear.
- Recognize that we face significant uncertainty and will continue to do so for some time.There are many contingencies depending on the overall economy, consumers, competition, regulatory changes and potential mergers or acquisitions. There can be many scenarios that we can imagine, some good and some not so good. It is up to us to make decisions and take action to take advantage of the best opportunities available.
- Assess your current situation honestly and tell the truth.Explain your current cash position and how long you can operate within your current structure. Do you have weeks, months or years worth of cash? Show that you have enough resources to do the job without panicking. This approach will help everyone in the organization understand the reality and move forward.
- Like the coach here MarshallMake sure you have the right playbook and the right team for this environment. Clarify your best market and customer opportunities to focus on during this period. Based on your current product and service capabilities, where do you focus? For example, if you have an established customer base, evaluate how to maintain or grow your business with them. If you’re pursuing new customers, make sure your value proposition and lead generation activities are focused on the best opportunities. Make sure you have the right team in the right roles and make decisions quickly if changes are needed.
- Speed up your operational planning process so that everyone in your organization knows their roles, responsibilities and goals for the foreseeable future.Instead of long-term plans, these should be ninety-day plans revised a quarter from now. Each person needs to have a clear direction about their contribution. Hold your direct reports accountable for ensuring that each person they supervise has an individualized action plan.
- Specify what you will not do. Clarify what markets, customers and opportunities you will find No Focus on this period. All of your time, energy and resources must be focused only on the best customer opportunities in this environment. Identify specific ways of doing things that have served you in the past, but which will not work in this environment. “Keeping doing what you’re doing” is a recipe for disaster.
Then “Are we going to live?” How would you handle this question? Let me suggest a blueprint of what you might say. My recommendation is to outline the very specific actions needed to be successful. Now is not the time for big sweeping vision statements. Try something like this: “I understand that you are all concerned about the current environment, how it will affect our business and what it means for you. You would expect me to say that bankruptcy is not an option. We are currently generating (or burning cash), so our risk level is high/medium/low and we are confident that we can operate for at least one year. Technically, failure is always an option if we fail to execute our plan – it’s the nature of business. So let’s focus on the features of our plan: We will focus on specific customers and offers. Fix their names here. This means that our sales and marketing organization must immediately refocus our lead generation, prospecting and sales activities on this set of customers. We will not focus on other opportunities for the near term.
Our product development organization will focus on these specific projects for future growth, name them. Our operations groups will ensure that we deliver on all our commitments effectively and efficiently. We are all responsible for managing our cash effectively. All these details require each person in the organization to play a specific role. Over the next thirty days, we’ll make sure these details are translated into individual action plans for everyone—and each of you will be asked for your best thoughts on how we can innovate, execute, and thrive in this environment. My direct reports are responsible for making this planning process happen. I welcome further questions on any aspect of the business and am committed to communicating on a weekly basis as events unfold. I appreciate the commitment each of you has made to the company.“Marshall’s coaches challenge the players to ‘keep it on the line until the final whistle, and if you do that, we can’t lose.'” As a leader, you can’t ask for that commitment until you work through a specific game plan. Why? If not, it’s time to get to work.
Copyright © 2009 Aligned Action, Inc. All rights reserved.
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