Five Things Leaders Can Do When Things Get Ugly

We all understand the difference between good times and bad times at work. During good times, people are comfortable in their roles, the work gets done, and the enterprise moves forward steadily on the strength of its mission and the momentum of its people and processes. Good leaders seize on the opportunities good times provide to accelerate progress and maximize the chances of future success.

When things are going poorly, it’s often hard to pinpoint the source of the difficulty. Even when the causes are known, solutions can be elusive. Good leaders understand that forging ahead and learning from such challenges can develop important strengths in both the leader and the organization.

What are the critical skills and instincts for dealing with difficult times? The ability to assess the situation tops the list. Many issues are nuanced while others are masked, so getting your arms around the true nature of the situation is vital.

Here are five questions to ask when you first sense that something is wrong:

1. What is the true cause of the problem?
2. Does the problem stem from people, process, or strategy?
3. Are you the last to know?
4. Who can help you address the problem?
5. How does the issue to be addressed relate to your customers?

Let’s look at each question in turn.

What is the true cause of the problem? Here at the outset, you need to distinguish symptoms from true causes. Is the problem that the company isn’t making money? Or is it that the sales department is poorly run, or that the world is changing and the company’s market is disappearing, or that someone is cooking the books and stealing from the company? Is the problem that the CEO can’t manage the current scale of the enterprise, or is it that tensions between the CEO and the board of directors have caused important strategic decisions to be postponed or poorly made? Are the products poorly engineered, or are vendors producing second-rate components that don’t perform as designed?

Recognizing symptoms is important, but your inquiry cannot stop there—you have to deeper to find the thing that you really need to change.

Does the problem stem from people, process, or strategy? The cause of an organization’s difficulty typically falls into one of these three categories. Each calls for a for a distinctive approach to the solution, so take time to make sure you’ve got the categorization right.

Are you the last to know? Obviously, this question isn’t meant to be taken literally—it underscores the idea that the existence of a problem may be widely known. So ask around. Confirm your perceptions with others. You may not only discover that the issue is older and broader than you suspected, you may also find people who have already thought about it and who can offer useful insights and suggestions. Besides, there’s no point in wasting social and reputational capital by declaring “Eureka, I’ve uncovered a problem” when everyone else is already aware of it. If it is the case that you’re the last to know, that should tell you something about your blind spots, or the quality of the information you’re getting from your team—or both.

Who can help you address the problem? Only rarely will you be able to solve a problem all by yourself. The most important work in organizations gets done by groups. But that doesn’t mean you should be nonchalant in your choice of people to help you address the situation. Don’t just take peoples’ skills, experience, network of influence, and organizational roles into consideration. Many problems have far-reaching practical and political implications, and you need to feel secure about the team you’ve assembled to address it. So think very hard about whom you trust enough let in on the problem.

How does the issue to be addressed relate to your customers? The dictum Customers come first applies here: before you make any change in the way you do business, you need to understand in exquisite detail what its effect will be on your customers. A change in market strategy, a change in service or product design, even a change in employee incentives or pay scales—they all can have an impact on customers.

Asking (and developing provisional answers to) these questions not only helps formulate a plan for addressing the difficulties your organization is facing, it also gives you some welcome confidence that you and your team will be able to turn the situation around. That emotional boost is just as valuable as the analysis that flows from these diagnostic questions.

The Action Plan

• When things start to go sour, don’t leap to conclusions about the source of the problem. Scrutinize your people, processes, and strategy, and be careful not to confuse symptoms with underlying causes.

• Cast your nets widely to find out who else knows about the problem and who can be useful in crafting a solution. If you’re the last to learn about a problem, you need to broaden your information network to include not only more people in a wider range of functions and levels, but also more people who are willing to tell you things you may not want to hear.

• Trustworthiness and political savvy are just as important as technical expertise when it comes to assembling a team to help you identify and address the problem.

• Once you’ve got a handle on how to proceed, check and recheck the proposed solution’s impact on your customer base. If the effects are damaging to customer loyalty, then you haven’t found the solution yet.

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About Jeff Cattell
Working to provide information, service and value to independent restaurants.

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