Leading through tough times - who cares?

by External02 Jul 2012

Times are tough. Organisations are in crisis. Who should care?

Successful leaders are able to inspire people to find ways to grow businesses in the toughest of markets – engaging the innovation, dynamism and hearts of their people at times when many employees are concerned for career self-preservation. Do your leaders make their people care? Do they care?

With rising costs, low growth and fears of double dip recession in the developed markets, businesses are once again bracing for a challenging year. Even Australia, comparatively unruffled by the GFC, is seeing many business sectors look nervously to Europe while negatively revising their own growth forecasts for 2012. The Australian dollar and the cost of funding debt are high. Consumer confidence and employee morale are low.

The recent history and experience are very much at front of mind – some leaders succeeded in growing their businesses through crisis and importantly, retaining and engaging talented employees long after the economy, and job markets, had rebounded. One critical lesson is that of connection, a new psychological contract of care between manager and staff, organisation and employee.

Fanatic discipline – leaders care

Much has been written on the corporate strategy requirements of these times, as it also has on the traits and competencies of leaders. Jim Collins in Great by Choice offers fanatic discipline as one critical driver of success. I believe this has as much relevance for leadership practices as business management.

The old adage that ‘people join a business and leave a manager’ appears to hold true alongside the need for connection to the business purpose and relationships with colleagues.

In 2009 research by Lazlo Bock, VP people operations at Google, his team of statisticians discovered that what employees valued most were consistent bosses who took the time for one-on-one meetings, who coached through good questions and who showed they cared about their employees’ careers and lives.

These ‘management’ tasks are sometimes perceived derogatorily as secondary to displaying true ‘leadership’. Far from being contrary to leadership, I maintain that these management basics are the primary opportunity to display leadership traits. They are a leader’s route to market, the shop window of leadership. It is at the toughest of times that leaders truly must get back to the basics.

Doing these leadership basics shows that the leader cares.

eBay ANZ made a strong response to the arrival of the GFC down under, kick-starting their significant growth at a time when many companies were static in shock. Aside from the strength of strategic leadership locally and an early warning from a parent company in the US, eBay demonstrated a number of great traits. Leaders went above and beyond to demonstrate a caring and human approach to their people (one of eBay’s values is ‘keep it human’) and introducing rigour into a highly informal, non-hierarchical culture.

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