Sunday, October 26, 2008

Free-Fall Leadership

I'm hoping to post here once a week or so, but once in a while, a small thing gets in the way. This month the small thing was the ongoing meltdown of the American economy, the looming end of our entitled lifestyle, and the collapse and resurrection of the company that (for the time being, at least) employs me.

To lay it out plainly: most of my back-office colleagues will not keep their jobs. I will not keep my job. If we're lucky, our new employer will keep us on for a bit as they transition customers, systems, and processes, but we won't know if that will be the case for a few weeks. Thus, in the near to very-near future, hundreds of my colleagues and I will be thrust into the job market at its lowest point in five years.

All in all, it's a bit distracting. On the other hand, it's given me an opportunity to view first hand how senior and mid-tier leaders, as well as rank-and-file employees, deal with crisis, uncertainty, and fear (and to see how I deal with it as well, but I'll save that for some future introspective blog).

And so it goes, that each day I work with colleagues, employees, and bosses who are uncertain about their own futures. Common themes emerge, and not to put too fine a point on it, they tend to mirror the famous stages of grief. (Best example of "denial": in spite of almost certain imminent unemployment, I went out and bought myself an iPhone yesterday. Also known as "shop therapy".)

One thing about leadership — at every level — is this: most things at work, as in life, are not under your control. You take measures to prepare for predictable risk, and when things go wrong, you take steps to fix the problem. In this situation, however, the enabling power of response and correction is unavailable. The game is over, and what has been decided, has been decided. In such a case, is there still an opportunity for leadership to make a difference?

Absolutely, right up through the bitter end. Call it "free fall leadership":
  1. Listen. An oldie but a goodie. I am discovering, though, that it's a lot harder to listen with all the noise going on between my ears: What will I do next? How long will it take to find work in this economy? What if I have to relocate? So listening, even for somebody with good listening habits, gets a lot tougher in times like this.

  2. Demand excellence. In this situation, it can be very hard for an employee to see why his or her contribution matters. And let's be honest: in some case, it doesn't matter as much as it used to. If I'm working on a product that I am pretty sure is headed for the dustbin as soon as the new bosses get around to noticing it, I'm feeling pretty demoralized. Remind your people (and yourself) that work quality is a matter of integrity. The new guys are still coming through with paychecks, and you owe them your best work. What they decide to do tomorrow is outside your control, but your personal integrity is not. In my time, I've written a lot of code and overseen any number of projects that never saw the light of day: I'm no less proud of my accomplishments, regardless of what others chose to do with them.

  3. Have fun. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for most people, and extended uncertainty, as my team is now experiencing, is downright painful. We have to work to get beyond that. We're having more group meetings featuring food, and we're proceeding with as much training and morale lifting activities as our your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine budgets will permit. And we don't discourage gallows humor: people need the release of laughter, and there's no use pretending things aren't as they are.

  4. Be honest, but stick to the facts. My team ask me often what I think will happen. I don't know. I'm pretty sure my boss doesn't know, and I'm pretty sure his boss doesn't know. On the other hand, I've been around for a while, and it's awfully tempting to share what I think is likely to happen. But there's just no upside to speculating: if I'm too optimistic, the outcome will be that much more crushing for the team; if I'm too pessimistic, I will kill morale and demolish productivity, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I don't know" is a perfectly good answer, as is, "well, in the worst case, X, and in the best case, Y, and of course it could be something in between."
Leadership in free fall is challenging because we all know how the story is going to end. The question is: can we have fun, maintain our dignity and integrity, and focus on what we can control in the mean time? If so, whatever the outcome, the trip won't have been so bad.

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