Effective Leadership in Tough Times

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – While this is always a good idea, it becomes critical in tough times. You have to let your people know as much as you can as soon as you can. If you don’t know, say so (see item one). “If the mentality is bunker mentality, break through with frequent communication,” said Charan. “Communicate both where you are winning and where you‘re problems are.”

Hands On – No ducking this one; you’re It. If you have to make tough decisions, make them early. Waiting won’t help. The economy is not going to recover quickly so it’s best to get yourself positioned to weather the storm early. Waiting only adds to the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) swirling through your organization. The bottom line is companies are going to be getting smaller, said Charan, so no use waiting around for the inevitable orders from above. “This is real. This is serious. You should see the questions being asked in the boardroom,” said Charan.

Get Outside – There is no substitute for walking around a shopping mall if you really want to know what is happening in the broader economy. It doesn’t matter what you make or what services you offer, if consumers aren’t buying, eventually, it will come back on your business. “It’s imperative for all leaders to … go outside and see what is the action in the external environment,” said Charan. “Do not let that information be filtered through intermediaries.” The CIO of McDonalds does this. So should you.

Also, talk to people in other departments and, if you can, other industries. Find out what the VP of Sales needs; find out what your COO is up against. But, do not ask them about strategy. Those questions are for happier times. Find out what they need; what their pain is. Help them salve this pain and you will have found a partner.

One exercise Charan uses is, at weekly staff meetings, to have a staff member take the first few minutes of the meeting to describe a change in another industry, any industry, any change. Then the group takes the next few minutes to figure out what this change means and for whom. After a while, it starts to become second nature to get your head out of your industry and see the bigger picture.

The Worst of Times …

Based on his conversations with business leaders last week, Charan also said that things are not going to be getting better any time soon. So, if you really want to become an asset to your CFO and CEO, then you have to understand what they are thinking about. And that “thing” is cash—all day, everyday. Cash is it. With credit markets all but dried up, if you company doesn’t have some cash reserves or, even better, some true cash flow, that is where you need to be spending your time as CIO—coming up with ways that IT can help the company generate cash.

“Can you figure out something in IT that will help that unit generate cash soon?” said Charan. “If you can do this, you will have a partner in the business.”