surviving the current economic downturn

Economic Rx for Business

Eleven Ways to Infuse Your Company with the Leadership Skills to Thrive in Tough Times

by Quint Studer

In good times, running a company is exhilarating. Money is flowing, customers are happy, employees have a spring in their step. In not-so-good times—like now—the very same job can feel like scaling Mt. Everest in a snowstorm while wearing a knapsack filled with bricks and suffering from a bad case of the flu.

All reports indicate that a recession is coming, and you suspect the next few years will be rough. You know there’s no “magic pill” for business success, but you do wish someone would at least give you, say, a guidebook to healthy habits.

There is something you can do to fortify your company for the future: create an organizational culture that develops great leaders today and instills the mechanisms and the mindset that will continue to foster great leadership tomorrow.

Great leadership is everything. All other elements of success flow from it. Companies with mediocre leadership can skate by when the economy is booming, but in tough times, they really suffer. Your leadership must be top-notch. If it isn’t, you may not be around five years from now.

So what can you do to get through the downturn in the economy? Well, creating a culture of sustainable leadership doesn’t happen overnight, but there are steps you can take right now that will yield quick wins and get your organization on the right path.

Go through your business plan with a fine-toothed comb. Figure out which objectives you are meeting, which ones need more emphasis, and which ones you should re-think. Make sure goals are aligned across every part of your company, that everyone is “singing from the same choir book.” At the same time, scrutinize your expenses, and cut anything that’s not absolutely necessary. And (here’s where many companies drop the ball) communicate your plan to all employees.

Upper-level managers are notorious for figuring out a plan and failing to let people know what’s going on. Remember: If your front-line employees don’t know you have a get-through-the-downturn plan, you don’t have a get-through-the-downturn plan. Everyone needs to understand the plan and buy in to it.

Chronic secretive behavior from leaders and lots of behind-closed-door meetings harm morale in any economy. Rumor and gossip thrive in a vacuum. But when you’re making changes in response to an economic downturn, transparency is especially important. If employees can tell you are hiding something—and 9 times out of 10 they can—they’ll assume the worst. They know tough times are at hand, and they probably lie awake worrying as often as you do.
Don’t candy-coat the truth or act like nothing’s wrong. It’s insulting to employees, and it erodes trust. They deserve and expect to be treated like adults. Pretend everything’s rosy when it’s clearly not and you might scare your best people into running for the hills.

Let’s say Worker Walt approaches Manager Mike to ask if a rumor about layoffs he heard is true. Mike responds with a deer-in-the-headlights stare and a vague, stammered comment that the company is doing its best to avoid any layoffs. Walt draws his own (grim) conclusions and starts spreading “the bad news.” The rumor mill kicks up a notch, and morale plummets. To avoid such scenarios, train managers on exactly what to say regarding timely issues—and how to say it.

Be very specific. Mike didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. He just failed to say it clearly, concisely, and confidently. You can prevent these kinds of misunderstandings by telling managers exactly what to say when employees ask questions about the company’s future. Write a “script” of sorts so that everyone is speaking in the same voice.

Okay, leaders, truth time: Do you sit around chewing your nails and dreaming up terrible scenarios? What if our biggest customer pulls out?, you fret. What if the market for our products and services dries up? What if our top designer or salesperson gets spooked and goes to work for a competitor?

If this sounds like you, stop it right now. When you exist in a constant state of worry, your state of mind infects everyone. Self-confidence plunges. Creativity ceases. Forward motion halts. And besides, 99 percent of the disasters you agonize over probably won’t come to fruition.

I heard something recently that really resonated with me. FEAR means “Fantasized Experiences Appearing Real.” It’s true. We sit around and conjure up all these awful scenarios and then wonder why we can’t move forward. Fear paralyzes. And no one can paralyze himself into moving forward.

One of my favorite phrases is, “What you permit, you promote.” When you allow free-floating anxiety to permeate your company, you’re basically giving it your stamp of approval. If an employee expresses worry about the bad economy, don’t just clap her on the shoulder and say, “Yeah, I know it’s rough; hang in there!” That lends credibility to her anxiety and indicates that you share it. Plus, empty consolation is supremely unhelpful.

A better solution would be to say to her, “Tell me what you’re struggling with today.” Get specific. Engage the worried employee. Ask, “What can we do to help you?” Often, the simple act of vocalizing fear helps defuse it. And encouraging employees to do so gives leaders the opportunity to reinforce the company’s strategy.

Employees really need you right now. One way to make a real connection with employees—daily—is to practice what I call “rounding for outcomes.” In the same way that a doctor makes rounds to check on patients, a leader makes rounds to check on employees. The technique allows you to regularly touch base with employees, make personal connections, recognize success, find out what’s going well, and determine where improvements are needed.

Rounding helps you build a strong emotional bank account with employees. Mind you, that’s always important, but it’s especially critical in a down economy. When you need to rally the troops, they have to know you care. Troops who don’t think you care can’t be rallied. They might even desert.”

Yes, now is the time. Low performers suck up a disproportionate amount of owners’ and managers’ time, tick off customers, squash morale, and drive away high performers. When business was booming, you may well have let their bad behavior slide. Now, the day of reckoning is here. You should be spending 92 percent of your time with high and middle performers and only 8 percent with the people who don’t really want to be there—and if you’re not, you must take steps to remedy that now. (In my new book, Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors That Will Take Your Company to the Top, I outline a plan for doing just th You can’t afford to alienate your customers, you can’t afford to neglect your middle performers, and you certainly can’t afford to lose your superstars. In short, you can’t afford to keep your low performers any longer. Period.

In uncertain times, it would be disastrous to lose your best employees. But at the same time, it may be unrealistic to pony up a big raise right now. That’s okay. You can offer your people perks that don’t cost your company a lot of money. Think about ways you can make their lives easier—flex time, partial work-from-home schedules (much appreciated in these times of exorbitant gas prices), access to a “chore runner” to pick up dry cleaning and stop by the supermarket—and implement them. rket—and implement t For example, many employees have no type of financial planning in place. You might give them access to your company’s CPA or financial planner, who can advise them on better bank accounts, IRAs, college funds, debt repayment, and more. So even if you can’t provide bigger paychecks, you can help them manage their expenses a little better.

How should employees answer the phone? Should they knock before entering a co-worker’s office? Do you prefer that they steer clear of controversial topics like politics and religion? Should they keep cell phones turned off? cell phones turned off?

You may never have given serious consideration to such questions, but you should. I suggest creating a “Standards of Behavior” contract that employees help craft, then sign. (There are detail in my book, Results T The idea is to create the best possible company, a place where employees can do their best possible work and customers can get the best possible service. These contracts ensure that everyone consistently has a great experience with your company. That’s always important, but in economic hard times it’s absolutely critical.

Insist that employees do the same. A recession (or “downturn.” if you’re not willing to use the “r”-word) is simply a national confidence problem, usually exacerbated by lots of negative talk. The same dynamic exists in your own sphere of business. That’s why you should say only great things about your company and its staff, whether you’re talking to outsiders, clients, or employees themselves. Also, you should insist that your employees do the same. I call this “managing up”—i.e., accentuating the positive—and it’s a valuable confidence-building tool that keeps employees content and customers coming back. s a valuable confi Never tell a client that business is slow, even if it is. Don’t express doubt to employees about your company’s ability to weather this downturn. Tell everyone how great your company is, how talented your people are, how excited you are about the future. All this positive talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Okay, this one may seem obvious, but it can’t be said too often. When pressure to stay competitive is at an all-time high, you must be absolutely certain your customers are getting what they want and need from your company. Don’t assume that just because they’re not complaining, they’re happy. Start asking each customer exactly what her expectations are, document them on an individual preference card, and make sure all employees who come in contact with her get a copy. ndividual preference card, and make sure all employees who come in contact with her get a copy.

Never presume you know what’s important to a customer. Always ask, and always get it in writing. Individualized customer service is more critical now than ever. In the Globalization Age, it’s the only way you can differentiate yourselves from your competitors. So don’t look at it as merely a way to hang on to your customers until you get through the downturn; look at it as the new normal for your company.

There is a very big positive that comes out of downturns: It sharpens our survival instincts and shows us what we’re really made of. Instead of just coasting along on the wave of an economic boom, we’re forced to get focused and get serious. And for many companies, the pressing need to “turn it up a notch” kick-starts a journey of transformation.

Out of difficulty, heroes rise. Yes, there are losers when times get tough, but there are also winners, and some of them win really big. In other words, there is plenty of opportunity out there even now—especially now. Someone is going to seize that opportunity, gather the customers others aren’t taking care of, and invent new ways to corner new markets. That someone might as well be you.

About the Author
Quint Studer not only teaches it, he has done it. After leading organizations to breakthrough results, he formed Studer Group, an outcomes firm that implements evidence-based leadership systems that help clients attain and sustain outstanding results. He was named one of the “Top 100 Most Powerful People in Healthcare” by Modern Healthcare magazine for his work on institutional healthcare improvement, and “Master of Business” by Inc. magazine. He is the author of BusinessWeek bestseller Hardwiring Excellence: Purpose, Worthwhile Work, Making a Difference; 101 Answers to Questions Leaders Ask; and Wall Street Journal bestseller Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors That Will Take Your Company to the Top. For more information, visit

About the Book
Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors That Will Take Your Company to the Top (Wiley; October 2007; ISBN: 978-0-471-75729-0; $24.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797. Copies also can be purchased online through the Studer Group Web site at


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