When the going gets tough …

by 28 Apr 2009

An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty and, according to Ken Gunn, lights are blazing at the end of the economic tunnel for CEOs

If you read the newspapers or watch TV, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’re all doomed economically. Bad news sells, which keeps staff worried about their jobs and con sumers with their wallets and purses firmly pocketed. So you can imagine my surprise when I started looking through the results of our recent national CEO Institute member sur vey – these leaders are seeing opportunities to grow, change and, yes, lead.

Our survey was conducted in March and drew responses from 226 CEOs across Aus tralia, which equates to about 28 per cent of our membership. That is a very high response rate and I think it reflects a passion to be heard and to counter the conventional doom and gloom narrative of the media.

Consider this: fully 65 per cent of respon dents felt that the outlook for their business es through the remainder of calendar 2009 will either stay the same or improve. Only about three in 10 expected things to get worse. A fluke result? No: when asked when they expected “normal” economic conditions to return, 65.5 per cent forecast in either 2009 or 2010. These leaders see light blazing at the end of the tunnel.

But what moved me most about this sur vey was reading the hundreds of comments that our respondents wrote in their surveys. Our members are battling all the negativity with a ferocious positivity. One bluntly said: “Take advantage of the situation rather than be a victim of the economic environment.” That respondent would have pleased Winston Churchill who once said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

In the end, leadership is about leading people, which may explain another surprise in our survey. When asked to rate the chal lenges they face during the downturn, “main taining sales” was, of course, the leading issue (rated 3.7 out of 5 in importance). But the next two big ones were “refining leader ship style in lean times” (3.1) and “motivat ing staff” (2.9). The one I thought would be up near the top – “obtaining finance” – scored lowest at 2.6.

This focus on leading and motivating staff was a recurrent theme in respondents’ com ments. One said: “Now that we have stabilised our workforce, employee morale is increasing and this is very important, especially with the media hype on recession and job losses.” I am also very encouraged at how much members are drawing support, encouragement and ideas from each other in our CEO Institute peer-group syndicates: almost 8 in 10 mem bers rated it as valuable or extremely valuable.

This survey was conducted during a deep low point. Since then, the stockmarket has been trending upwards and Australia has been scoring unexpectedly high trade surpluses in areas such as goods and services ($2.11 billion in February, far above the forecast $700 million surplus). “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm” Democritus said in about 400BC. He is still right. Out there in the storm, our leaders are leading, motivating and selling – despite what the news says.

Ken Gunn is Chairman and CEO of The CEO Institute, a peer group learning and networking membership organisation for CEOs institute@ceo.com.au www.ceo.com.au