MORPH: Stay visible keep face

MORPH: Stay visible keep face

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."- Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator and writer (106-43 BC)The president of a rather large technology company recently told employees he wants them to be fungible, or so a correspondent reports. This might actually mean something, although probably not. The term "fungible", meaning interchangeable, is generally restricted to non-sentient beings, _after all.

Company presidents often say things to employees that are of less-than-pertinent interest for them. The interesting question isn't the meaning of fungibility. It's why this president chose such odd locution.

My guess: because of the economic downturn, he wanted to reassure the troops (a good idea) but didn't have any real news or anything reassuring to say (that happens); so he chose to say something vague and hard to understand (a bad thing).

Companies are dealing with downturns right now. Many have leaders who have never experienced anything except prosperity. Some even believed we would see nothing but growth for the next 50 years or so and figured they would never have to deal with hard times.

But hard times are upon us, folks - at least by the standards of the last eight years. And hard times are when leadership is both most important and _most conspicuously absent in many organisations.

It's easy to be captain when the weather is sunny and the wind is at your back. All you have to do is raise the sails and enjoy the ride. It's when the wind shifts that it takes skill to reach your goals.

So what's it going to take? The first and most important step is to get through your personal mourning period quickly. Yes, your personal mourning period. The world has changed -and not for the better. You've lost the good times, and whether you realise it or not, you're probably grieving for your loss right now.

Remember that the first stage of grief is denial, and this will help you understand a lot of the behaviour you see in others and in yourself. Right now, many leaders are in denial about the need to change perspectives, goals, strategies and priorities. Most of all, they're in denial about the end of an era in which growth was pretty easy to achieve.

Once you've stopped grieving, the next step is pretty obvious: your company needs a strategy suited to these new economic circumstances. That's the CEO's responsibility, of course; but CIOs and CTOs now have a seat at the planning table, so you're in this up to your neck.

There just aren't all that many strategies suited to a downturn in the economy. A business may batten down the hatches and ride things out; buy weakened competitors at bargain prices to acquire new customers cheaply; cut margins to aggressively acquire competitors' customers; redefine its marketplace, emphasising its core, highest-profit customers and new segments unaffected by the downturn.

Then again, a company may find a buyer - an action that would change nothing but would provide golden parachutes to the top executives while making the situation someone else's problem.

Sadly, most leadership teams simply react to events as they happen instead of formulating a clear strategy. If your company's leadership team is taking that tack, your company has chosen a batten-down-the-hatches strategy by default.

But that's OK, because a leader's most important job during these times is visibility, which means answering employees' questions. Any strategy _will equip you to answer them, so _long as your company has one. Even _hatch-battening.

Now, more than when times were good, you need to be visible. Why? Employees right now are worried - about their jobs, their departments, their projects, their friends. They need you to answer their questions, even if the answer is that you don't know yet.

It's perfectly OK to say, "Right now, our strategy is to ride this out. I don't know how it will affect your project yet. There are no guarantees right now because the situation changes month-to-month. What I need from you is to be flexible."

So are you visible? If you are meeting in closed rooms, involving only headquarters staff to make decisions that affect everyone in the field, you aren't visible; nor are you wise. The information you need to make good decisions is found in the field, not at headquarters.

If you announce your decisions from a podium and then leave, you aren't visible either. You inspire confidence by chatting with employees individually - not with a barrier between you and them.

Leaders who aren't visible - who make decisions in private, involving only their inner circle and only communicating by emerging to give a speech - are not leading. They are hiding.

Don't hide.

Bob Lewis is an independent consultant specialising in IT strategy and effectiveness.

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