Kumbaya Now! (how we can all professionally and personally survive the economic crisis)


Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this recessionary economy together. 

If you’re still lucky enough to be employed, listen carefully to my message, as simplistic as it may seem: It’s time to put aside the natural rivalry, competitiveness, intraorganizational politics and just plain silliness that is everyday business life if you want to stay employed, and moreover, to keep your business from going under.

It’s time to really look at the way the silos within your company are formed. Take them apart, and relearn how to run your business.  

Yes, I know I’m preaching. Sorry. But you can always stop reading here (but don’t).

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I assure you that on this day, in this economy, businesses need to adapt or die! We’re all terribly scared about the future of our careers and how it will affect our families. The more we — and when I say we, I mean employees and business owners — succumb to our fears, the more difficult it is to work together. We second-guess ourselves. We second-guess others, and most importantly, we spend a lot of time playing armchair quarterback to the decisions that are being made.

It’s no wonder companies are going under daily. If you look carefully, you’ll see mismanagement as the big culprit. Greed. Power. Ego. We can’t run businesses this way at this time in history.

It’s officially time for kumbaya! From this point forward, you and your colleagues must work together to fight to keep your company alive.

Beyond newfound camaraderie, two keys to doing this are obviously increasing sales and reducing costs. If you look, I’m sure you can find many places where your company’s inefficient.

As an employee, you already know they’re there, but fear keeps you silent, doesn’t it?

Recently, while consulting for a company, I set up an internal group, more like a renegade operation, and named it “Operation: Unturned Stone.” The goal of this operation was to turn over every stone in the organization in search of opportunities to either reduce costs or increase sales. This required getting people together from each department in the company. And not the heads of that division either, but key managers who aren’t usually empowered to make a difference like this. 

We put them together in a room, told them NO topic was off-limits, even pet projects their CEO might be working on, and told them to build a report on what can be done better.  

The last part of Operation Unturned Stone is critical: C-level management must make the commitment to listen and take action. Also critical is that each member of the presenting group can feel 100 percent comfortable that there will be no consequences for what they recommend. Additionally, upper management at all companies need to address the paranoia level. Peoples’ nerves are frayed as they wait for more bad news or the axe to fall.

The time is now for reassurance, comfort and team building. This can be accomplished relatively quickly. Along with reassurance, get your employees together. Suggest outside-of-the-office events. Create events as well. No, I’m not talking about corporate retreats. How about an ice skating night? A company picnic for no reason? Give out free movie passes; something along those lines.  

In short, it’s your responsibility to do what it takes from any level to ensure that your staff sticks together in these troubling times. Now is not the time for every man/woman for him/herself!

We will get through this difficult time and thrive again.

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12 Responses

  1. Jim:

    Hoping workers will all put their political agendas aside is a bit like telling a group of dogs that they’re now cats and should go climb trees and catch mice. In times like these, unfortunately, the political agendas increase geometrically. And 99% of all readers don’t have the ability to affect the silos or the structures that contain them. So we’ve got to focus on what can be done, not the more utopian option.

    However, the real gem in your post – and one of the great value adds that come from people like you and me — is the focus on doing the most with what you’ve got and extracting the needless expenses from the organization.

    Defining how to get bigger ideas and larger responses out of finite amounts of dollars and time is of paramount importance. Cost reduction – where appropriate – should be a daily thing, much like flossing, and probably with similar conformity. It’s also a great climate to think of bigger, better ideas – and one that benefits from an outsider’s perspective. All innovation comes from elsewhere, so your ability to find it and mine it is critical. We must strategically shift our perspectives so we don’t try to do what always worked before when money was everywhere. These are different times.

    Thanks – good post!

    Regards,
    Stephen Denny
    @Note_to_CMO

    • Stephen, you write extremely well. Colorful imagery. Dogs and Cats. Flossing! Nice. Look at it like this.

      1. Step one cost reduction (non head count)

      2. Step two increase revenue by getting more out of sales (think about website and call center and how efficient they are)

      3. Slowly change your corporate culture by fostering an atmosphere of teamwork and this is KEY – Have C-Levels open their eyes to the political BS and jockeying and get rid of the elements that pull away from this new direction.

  2. Uniting people for a common cause is always hard. Even when it’s in their own best interest, you have to overcome so much human inertia to make any change. People are creatures of habit, and you don’t know how true this is until you try to initiate a change in the way things are done.

    As one example, I set the NMOA up long ago for uniting small and midsized direct marketers and vendors to cooperatively work and promote together at much lower cost. Yet, each direct marketer still needs to be fully educated on the fact that it can be done at a much lower cost, and more expensive does not mean better.

    But that education process is hard.

  3. Change is difficult, but it becomes much easier when people who are perceived to hold power (C-level, managers, and Alpha types) humble themselves, make themselves vulnerable, and drive out fear. It does not come about by pre-ordaining a “plan” and then begging or chiding people to set aside their parochial interests and biases to achieve that agenda. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Any hint that a person’s security is at risk will always trigger deep-seated fight-or-flight instincts. Making yourself vulnerable reflects courage and integrity that brings out the best in your people, because it does the reverse of threatening them. It draws them in. As a motivator, making your plans vulnerable to their open criticism is more powerful than cash.

    Same is true for customers.

  4. I truly appreciate your comments to this. Please be advised, I don’t expect this sort of paradigm shift to happen overnight. My goal of this article was to spark some interest and debate into what our common business principles are and how they need to adapt in this economy.

    Business as usual, relationships as usual, politics as usual cannot continue to exist in the way it has in the past in order to change. We’re at a great turning point, something that happens at the beginning of each century.

    I only ask you to consider what your organization would look like if people truly worked together?

    Change only comes about when people who are exhausted decide to take a stand.

    Food for thought? A call to action? You decide on the future!

    Regards,
    Jim Gilbert

  5. Great blog entry, Jim. You hit the nail on the head when you said C-level managers have to be open to listen and take action. They lead by example: by coming together as a management team and asking for this kind of feedback from their employees is critical to a company learning the weak spots in their business model and addressing them.

    I recently spoke to a CEO who said that he feels a great personal responsibility for the well-being of his employees and their families: a wrong decision on his part and he’s just put some families in the bread line, so to speak. If only every CEO thought that way, at least some of the time.

  6. Early in my career, I had the good fortune to be exposed to the teachings of W. Edwards Deming-Total Quality Management and continuous process improvement. Deming proposed that the processes of a company often prevented employees from doing their jobs better and more efficiently. Given the opportunity, even the workers at the lowest levels can offer incredible suggestions to improve the operations of the company.

    Throughout my long career, I have found this to be true. Most employees can tell management how they can improve their performance if management would only ask (and listen). At one company, a new president was brought in to turn the company around. I was surprised one day to find the new president standing at my door asking for a bit of my time. He sat down and asked “If you were my shoes, what 5 things would you do?” I told him what I thought, all of my suggestions were aimed at improving the process and not involved with personalities or petty peeves. When my boss (the EVP) found out, he went ballistic.

    It seems to me that a lot of the paranoia comes from management. In the better companies, management has put this behind them and has learned to listen to their workers. The companies who don’t are falling by the wayside. We all need to improve and must understand that good ideas can come from ANY level within the organization.

    Great post, Jim. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

  7. The biggest and most superfluous cost in our company is the ridiculous amount that management takes out every year, stifling investment in projects and resources that could meaningfully help us to grow (their fear of the economy is leading them to grab all they can…while the rest of us get no raises). Speaking up and saying anything about that, though, would put me on the fast track to the unemployment office, where everyone else in America is already hanging out.

    And so I’m going to shut up, improve my skills and accomplish some A-list projects, then market myself to a company that will pay me what it’s worth, and let this ship float or sink on its own merits. This is a good post, but it’s a utopian view that’s certainly far from a reality in my place of employment.

    The supreme irony is that my company is trying to get themselves on every “best place to work” list they can apply for.

    • Sorry to hear that Cal. But suggesting a program like I describe above (operation turned stone) can become an a-list project. All companies, no matter how messed up love to perceive that they are increasing sales and reducing costs.

      Getting upper management buy in to letting your mid level group speak, and speak without fear of reprisal, is key to this.

      Insert bitter laugh about the best place to work!

      Jim

      • Jim:

        I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of our situation. The only organizations that will survive this downturn are those that operate as you’ve described.

        The biggest challenge in adopting this mindset is managing those who seek to take advantage of anyone or any team expressing vulnerabilities, etc. The positive actions you recommend are excellent and certainly necessary but, in my opinion, they are only part of the solution.

        How should we directly address subversive actions that discredit honest efforts to make improvements? As Cal maintains about his situation: “Speaking up and saying anything . . . . would put me on the fast track to the unemployment office.”

        I agree that change only comes about when people decide to take a stand. However taking a stand will be much easier for some of us than it will be for others. If you are in a strong position, taking the bull by the horns is a no brainer. If not, however, taking a stand may expose you to “friendly fire”; the result of which can be just as deadly as enemy fire.

        I’d like to hear how others have managed personal and group success while improving organizational survival. When they arise, how do you directly protect your efforts from the very forces that you are trying to eliminate?

        As some mediocre philosopher once stated: “No good deed goes unpunished”.

        Dan

        • Thanks for your well thought out comments Dan. I wish i had more answers, unfortunately I can mostly raise the questions and sound the alarm.

          Jim

  8. Greed, ego and power are definitely things that can be beneficial to a business, but you’re right, not in these times. Working together with others and developing new ideas is a great way to succeed in these times. Thanks for this article!

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