Leading in Tough Times
by Kathleen Robinson
tough times article
Challenging times call for skillful, confident leadership. A recent survey of 828 senior managers conducted by Booz & Company late last year, showed that 40% of senior leaders doubt that their executive leadership has a credible plan to address the current economic crisis and 46% are not sure that their leaders could carry out the plan, whether it was credible or not. Based on my own observations and research, I think these feelings and opinions are fairly widespread these days. By their words and actions, leaders have the opportunity everyday to inspire and motivate others. In working with leaders for over two decades, I have distilled a list of core leadership lessons and practical application tips to help leaders achieve high levels of engagement and commitment, especially during difficult and uncertain times.

Connect the dots for people: It's easy for us to lose our perspective and get lost in the weeds. In the midst of major change initiatives, it's important to frequently tell all stakeholders where we've been, where we are and where we're going. We know that we are more willing to support change if we understand how the pieces fit together.
Practice Tips: Create a dashboard for your employees that measures progress in a few key result areas and review it frequently at team meetings. Also, don't forget to set the context for group meetings and presentations. How does this topic/proposal connect to where we are now? Another tip... Make sure every employee has a line of sight between their work deliverables and key strategic initiatives. Link individual performance feedback to the top three company objectives.

Listen well and Empathize: All of us can come up with many examples where we didn't feel heard or seen as a valued customer or employee. Each of us has a need to have our opinions heard and our experience validated. We're not able to embrace solutions until we feel completely understood.
Practice Tip: Let people know that you truly understand what they're thinking and feeling before you offer solutions. Paraphrase what you've heard and acknowledge the feeling content behind their words before offering your ideas and suggestions. I guarantee people will be more receptive if they know you have fully considered their opinions and feelings.

Express confidence in your team: When we're in the throes of change, we're often under pressure to get more done, do it faster, do it better. And most of us are not always at our best when we're under pressure. When mistakes do happen, skillful leaders help everyone learn from those mistakes while continuing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. The message you want to send to your team is that they are the right people for the right time. We are all in this together!
Practice Tip: Schedule time on your team meeting agenda to have the group acknowledge each other for their contributions to the team. Also, look for opportunities every day to offer encouragement and express appreciation to others-customers, employees, service providers, family, friends.

Focus on the future you're building, not the mistakes of the past: It's true that if we don't learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them. But too often, groups lean too heavily on problem solving models to focus on what's not working. Another viable approach is to focus the conversation on what's working well and what you want to build together. People are much more open and less defensive when you tap into their energy and ideas for positive change.
Practice Tip: Appreciative Inquiry is a powerful proven strategy that encourages people to study, discuss, learn from, and build on what works well when they are at their best, rather than focusing on what's going wrong. The model was first introduced by David Cooperrider in the 80s, and we're seeing a resurgence of interest in many leading organizations. A good foundational reference is the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook by David Cooperrider, et al. This positive approach will change the way you think and work.

Make your thoughts and actions transparent: Each of us is responsible for getting our intended message across to others and gaining their support. Yet, how many times have your ideas and motivations been misunderstood by others? As stated above, we all want to be given the benefit of the doubt. One way to do that is to make our thinking more transparent. By sharing the mental path that has led to our opinions and conclusions, we foster much better dialogue and mutual understanding.
Practice Tip: When making a point or sharing an idea, let people know why you think as you do. What experiences or data has shaped your opinion or what assumptions have you made? And always speak the truth, no hidden agendas. The truth has a way of resonating well with others, even if it's hard to hear.

Leaders at every level of the organization, large and small across all industries, are under pressure to innovate, continuously improve performance and get results. My aikido instructor once told me that under pressure, we sink to our highest level of training. We owe it to ourselves and the people we serve to keep improving our leadership game so we can truly make a difference.
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