A Crisis Is a Horrible Thing to Waste
Five ways to boost leadership development when things break bad.
When things break bad (even momentarily) in an organization, a number of predictable reflexes kick in. Expenses are cut. Operations reviews evolve into extended, public proctology exams with everyone taking a long look searching for answers and blame. Time horizons shrink, the collective field of vision narrows to a pinhole and the lofty, noble ideals of developing leaders and teams that top management so passionately espoused during good times are reduced to echoes from a different era -- when things were good.
Some of the responses are reasonable and expected. Expenses and forecasts merit exploration. Others are destructive. Suspending the work of developing your leaders and managers is destructive. Instead of letting your training budget dictate your team and leadership development efforts, try a return to the powerful and much needed full-contact work of coaching and teaching. Frankly, we should be doing this all the time, but too often we let external training substitute for our own heavy lifting around leadership development. Tight budgets are no excuse to back off. Instead, try these low-cost, high contact ideas to help support your efforts.
Here are five ways to double down on people development when things break bad:
1. Get the right conversations started. Encourage the managers and leaders to form their own reading/discussion groups. You buy the pizza, drinks and occasional reading materials and they talk about and then act on making things better. Caution, no need to make this a corporate mandate or HR- driven program. Sow the seeds and support the efforts, but don’t make it feel like work. You’re lighting or stoking the collective fire for individuals to find a new performance gear and you have to inspire, not command, involvement. My suggested starter book: the latest edition of The Leadership Advantage by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. The discussion and potential for idea generation in Chapter 1 alone will make this one of your best professional development investments ever.
2. Increase your coaching efforts. Because the time horizon is now perceived as short and the field of vision narrowed to a laser focus on the revenue and cost numbers, the soft but hard discussions are often left for some future date to be determined. They just don’t happen, which is counterintuitive. Effective leaders redouble their efforts to remain attuned to their own managers and senior team leads, and both offer coaching to support strengthening and to shore up morale. While there’s always an opportunity cost to your time investments, this one pays significant dividends. Focus on observing, coaching and supporting your people. If your calendar doesn’t have the equivalent of 20 percent of your time on this per week, you’re not taking it seriously.
3. Mind the gap on big decisions. While closely related to the coaching efforts, any process of recovery invites big decisions on people, projects, structure and investment priorities to the table. Big decisions are often decisions that end up stalling out while everyone’s rushing around putting out fires or simply avoiding the discomfort. Hold your key leaders accountable to moving forward on the decisions and commensurate action items. Coach them through the decision process, and ensure that they’re prepared for the critical next steps on people, structure and programs following the decisions. Nothing supports professional development like the ownership of a big decision and accountability for the actions and outcomes.
4. Pick, prioritize and projectize the recovery efforts. Develop the discipline to identify and prioritize the limited number of critical recovery priorities and then get teams working on them. In a crisis, there’s a tendency to drive a lot of activity with no vector. Instead, help the employees narrow their own efforts to the critical few activities and then provide support for these project teams. Be deliberate selecting team leaders. These recovery priorities are remarkable developmental opportunities for people you perceive are ready for a new and bigger challenge. Again, nothing supports leadership and professional development like team leadership, particularly when the stakes are high. Ensure that each team is aligned with a good sponsor who understands his/her role to support building an effective team environment, and then let the teams and leaders run hard.
5. Bring your organization’s values to life. Sometimes the best development tools and opportunities are right in front of you in the form of your organization’s values. All too often the values get lost in the noise -- they’re present on the wall and in the employee handbook, but mostly invisible in the daily work of the organization. Home-grow a program focusing on exploring the meaning and application of the values in the day-to-day work environment. Let your managers grow a grassroots program to recruit these powerful (and aspirational) behavior statements into the hard work of helping the firm navigate the storm. This work can be a game changer for strengthening your firm’s culture.
The best professional development always takes place with live-fire activities. While budget cuts might kill the external training activities for a period of time, a crisis shouldn’t mean the end to the good work of leadership development. A crisis is a horrible thing to waste. Use it wisely and you’ll come out of it with a stronger team prepared to take your firm to new levels of success.
Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Management Excellence blog.