How to Lead in Tough Times

Debbie Zmorenski
Tags: talent management

Leadership is a very broad and nebulous term. Generally accepted definitions of leadership include "the activity of leading" and/or "a person who rules, guides or inspires others." By these definitions, anyone can be a leader, whether you formally manage and lead a team as a manager or supervisor, or if you just happen to find yourself in a position to influence others.

During hard times especially, you need leaders who have the ability to see and seize opportunities as they present themselves. Possessing leadership capabilities does not necessarily have anything to do with a title but has everything to do with future-thinking professionals who are willing to proactively step up to the plate and buy into a culture of progressive action.

The grid below shows characteristics of managers vs. those of leaders. The questions for you to answer as a business professional or aspiring business professional are: "Which are you?" and "For which attributes and characteristics would you like to be known?"

Organizational consultant and author Warren Bennis once said, "The truth is that no one factor makes a company admirable. But if you were forced to pick the one that makes the most difference, you'd pick leadership."

The leaders who will be most successful during hard times are those people in an organization with the skills and characteristics of a leader vs. those of the manager. Below are five strategies that enable true leaders to lead their teams to not only survive but thrive during tough economic times:

Practice Hands-on Leadership

Be visible. Get out of the office and onto the floor into the work areas. Hold town-hall meetings and information sessions where everyone is invited. Greet new hires in person and welcome them to the company.

Become a mentor. Mentors guide others to success, adding value to the employee experience and grooming internal candidates for promotion. A mentor is able to leverage his or her experience, education and knowledge of the company to develop others for the good of the individual and the company.

Know your employees. Building relationships with employees and learning about them as individuals are proven methods for building employee confidence and loyalty in you and the company.

Gain a better understanding. Set up work experiences and insist that your leadership team does the same. For example, you may require that you and your team work one shift in the operating areas in a front-line discipline at least once a quarter. There's no better way to get to know your employees as well as gaining an understanding of how your policies, procedures, rules and expectations impact the front-line employee and the work that they perform.

Lead by Example

Be a role model. Model the behaviors that you expect from your employees.

Walk the talk. If, for example, you tell your employees that times are tough and everyone may have to make sacrifices to ensure that the company stays solvent, then you must make sacrifices as well. You cannot cut hours, cut pay, lay people off and then pay yourself a huge bonus, no matter how much you deserve it.

Communicate Effectively

Communicate all news – good or bad – openly, candidly and honestly. Be sure that the employees have all of the information they need to support the company and contribute to the future success of the company.

Communicate in all directions to all levels of the organization. Omitting people from the communication loop creates an environment of fear and distrust.

Use appropriate and relevant methods for communication. Avoid using e-mail and other forms of written communication if the message is of a critical or complicated nature. Always remember that written communication is open to interpretation. Ensure that your method of communication aligns with the nature of the message. If it is important that the message is not misconstrued in any way, you may need to communicate in person by holding a staff or town-hall meeting, or possibly even communicating one-on-one with individuals on the team.

Become a Change Agent

The four major reasons that people resist change are fear of losing something they value, misunderstanding the change and what it means, believing the change is not beneficial, and low personal tolerance for change.

Embrace change; do not brace for change. Change is the rule rather than the exception, especially in today's business environment. In fact, it's not an exaggeration to say that business in this country will never be the same again. Change is inevitable. Make sure that it is the right change, not change for the sake of change.

Proactively seek change. If you wait until the business is failing, it's too late. By not proactively changing to keep up with changes in the internal business or external environment, you have given the competition a green flag to take over your market share and put you out of business.

Realize that change is emotional. Like it or not, as part of the plan for change, leaders must prepare to deal with the emotions generated by change, big or small, in the organization. People will experience fear – for their jobs, their positions and their status. They will feel anxiety over what will happen next and wonder what the future looks like for them. Some people become angry, especially if the company is implementing change frequently during a short time span. Leaders who put their heads in the sand and refuse to deal with the emotional aspects of change will experience low morale leading to low productivity, low quality of work and high turnover – all of which disable the company's competitive growth engine.

Involve people in the change. Whenever possible, get everyone involved in the change process. This generates buy-in and helps to alleviate some of the more negative emotions surrounding change.

Communicate openly and honestly. The worst thing that a leader can do is to keep information from employees. In the absence of information, they make it up, making a difficult situation worse.

Redefine Operational Efficiencies

Assess, assess. Regularly assess policies, processes and procedures to ensure that they continue to be effective in the changing environment. During tough times, you must look at your business in new ways. The external environment has changed, and the altered forces driving business require new and innovative thinking.

Ask for/listen to employees' ideas. One of the biggest challenges is to assess which operational policies and processes may need to change or even be eliminated. Great leaders know that employees have the best ideas and that no one knows better than the front-line employees which operational policies, processes and procedures work and which do not.

Remove old paradigms. Eradicate the phrase, "We've always done it this way!" from your and your team's vocabulary.

The leaders who will be most successful during hard times are those leaders with the ability to demonstrate the skills for efficiently delivering on these five strategies for growth and survival.

Whether you're a leader today or a future leader, you should be aware that the game has changed. Leaders for the future will require more skills, more patience, and a new and innovative view of leadership and corporate America in general in order to find success in the new businesses of the 21st century and beyond.