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Leadership House Call

Keeping Focused on the Long-Term

During these economic times there is increased and intense competition for short-term resources in many organizations. Under these circumstances, how do you balance short-term operational needs with long-term strategic plans? -- Steven M. Rothstein, President, Perkins School for the Blind

Hi Steven,

Thanks for helping us launch Leadership House Call!

We're smiling at the symbolism of the first question coming from the Perkins School for the Blind. Your mantra at Perkins is "all we see is possibility." More than ever, this is the time to make that mantra come alive.

How can you use the current circumstances, when anxiety is high, to invest in the long term at the expense of some short-term benefits?

Our experience is the same as yours. The usual pressure to allocate resources and produce results in the short term (which, after all, helped to produce the economic meltdown) has been exacerbated in the present environment.

This is where your own mantra comes in. Be optimistic and realistic. To be credible you have to be realistic about the concerns people have and about the uncertainty they feel. But at the same time being optimistic and "seeing the possibilities" is critical in taking advantage of the moment.

People understand that we are undergoing a sea change and that the sand is shifting beneath our feet. They know that business as usual will not be adequate. In order to create the space for long-term investment, you -- as CEO -- need to acknowledge the stress people are experiencing while at the same time staying publicly positive, creative and open about how to proceed into the future.

As you mention, convincing others to invest in the future, rather than succumb to the pressure of short-term fixes, is hard. Here are six steps to try that will help you set the stage for a broader focus among your colleagues. The current reality holds opportunity to be channeled.

First, buy time. If the anxiety is really high, you need to make some visible progress right away to give yourself some breathing room. Look at your to-do list. Is there anything on it that you can accomplish relatively quickly and will have immediate and visible outcomes that will touch many of the people and interests in your organization?

Second, distinguish what is essential from what is expendable. Design a process to engage your internal and external communities in a conversation about what, of all the things you could do or want to do, is truly essential to your purpose. What is further away from your core mission can be deferred, suspended or simply left behind. Use your authority to manage these conversations, which will undoubtedly surface conflicting view about what is most important. Above all, resist making these decisions on your own. Big adaptations can come from leaving only a little behind. After all, human DNA is 96 percent the same as monkeys. It doesn't take much change to make a big difference.

Third, show empathy. Whatever you leave behind will be experienced as a loss. Publicly acknowledge the losses that some people and interests will have to take on and allocate resources, time, and energy to help them through.

Fourth, run experiments rather than solve problems. No one knows what the future will bring or how best your company, organization or government should enter into it. But if you believe in your mission, people, and the creative ideas that can come out of this time, you can take advantage of the current pressures. Initiate some of those items on your wish list and run parallel experiments that would not be acceptable in calmer times. Monitor those experiments closely and make mid-course corrections. Don't hesitate to cut short what is clearly not working. Experiments will help you determine the best way for your organization to adapt in an unpredictable world.

Fifth, stay connected to purpose. Keep explicitly reminding yourself and your people why you are doing what you are doing. This will help you hold your own and others' actions accountable and focused. As you take in some short-term losses and criticism, remaining true to your purpose will allow you to be better positioned for the long term.

Sixth, take care of yourself. This is going to be a tough period. You are asking people who are anxious and more short-term oriented than usual to take some risks on behalf of the organization. In order to do that, you need to be at the top of your game. It is not self-indulgent to make sure that you get the rest, nutrition, exercise, reflection time, and affection that you need to hold steady and perform at your peak.

Steve, thanks again for your relevant question. We know many people are also thinking about how to motivate their staffs to think about the future and hope some of these ideas help regardless of the sector you currently work within.

By Cambridge Leadership Associates

 |  April 14, 2009; 2:16 PM ET |  Category:  Goal Setting Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg     Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Guys, thanks for this advice. Particularly relevant both for the industry I work in and the challenges we're facing.

Two points I feel compelled to reinforce: 1) acknowledging what is being left behind is absolutely essential. But make sure it's done publicly...in person. Be sure to acknowledge everything that is being shed: people, initiatives, luxuries, strategies. There will be a tendency to be suspicious of things that are cut and not acknowledged: what is the larger implication? Is there something in the works that is bigger but related? Be sure to reflect on how those things helped, why they were important when they were and how not having them will affect the new course of business.

Secondly - RUN EXPERIMENTS! And be clear that that's what you're doing. There's no harm in admitting that you don't know everything and that you probably don't know how to operate in a business environment that many of us have never experienced. Let people know, "We're going to try things. Not everything is going to work." But listen to how people feel about these experiments, gauge their success, and make changes to improve them. Do not, however, give up too quickly.


Posted by: mcmontero | April 16, 2009 10:16 AM

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