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Recession Therapy: Four Handholds for Weary Executives

Francie Dalton
Francie Dalton, CMC, is president of Dalton Alliances, Inc., a Maryland-based business consultancy specializing in the communication, management, and behavioral sciences. She is the author, most recently, of "Versatility: How to Optimize Interactions When 7 Workplace Behaviors Are at Their Worst."

Leaders are reeling these days. They've been alone on the hot seat for months -- making gut wrenching decisions, withstanding white-hot criticism, and managing politically charged, increasingly unreasonable stakeholder expectations.

Below are four of the toughest, most complex challenges leaders are facing today, along with advice on how to handle them.

1. Implementing Lay-Offs

Restructuring is a gut-wrenching task and is among the most dreaded responsibilities of a leader. It is possible, however, to bring some level-headed process to this emotionally charged task.

First, rank your priorities. Identify essential outcomes -- outputs that your company or your customers cannot live without -- and call these Tier 1. Next think of outcomes that you or your customers could get by without, albeit with some difficulty. In Tier 3, put all staffing, tasks, products and processes you and your customers can live without -- these have to go. Next, ask yourself: Which functions in Tier 1 or 2 could be subcontracted out without seriously eroding quality? These areas are where you can make some staffing cuts.

Another tactic is "forced weighting." Create a chart with every departmental output as a row, and success criteria (e.g. margin, reputation, customer retention, uniqueness) as columns. Rank each column as "A," crucial; "B," important; or "C," desirable. Enter checkmarks in cells indicating which outputs achieve which success criteria. This chart will make it clearer, in black and white, where cuts have to happen.

Before releasing anyone, however, carefully consider the functional versatility of personnel. Could someone performing a non-essential function be redeployed to cover a more vital task? And remember: The best subcontractors are often previous employees.

2. Motivating Remaining Staff

During an economic crisis, when so many quantitative indicators compete for attention, the power of committed human spirits is often overlooked. The ability to marshal and optimize this mighty resource is directly related to one's ability to craft and deliver a resonant message.

Human motivation cannot be commanded -- it must be elicited. And an inspiring message must link to each of four core values: producing results, helping others, being flexible, and achieving certainty. When messages are packaged to resonate with all these values, increased productivity and loyalty -- even in the midst of hard times -- becomes the deliberate, voluntary choice of each individual.

3. Delivering More With Less

Once you've made personnel cuts, remaining employees can feel they now have insurmountable workloads -- whether real or imagined. The first task is to distinguish essential functions from those that masquerade as such, and often the best person to ask these tough questions is a dispassionate third party. Ask your people:

  • How much time is required for the functions you perform, in terms of hours per week/month?
  • Which of your functions, with proper training, could be done by a subordinate?
  • Which functions do not require your level of intellect or experience?

The total hours calculation alone can be breathtaking. Often, those with the heaviest workloads are forced to realize they are complicit in being "overwhelmed" because they refuse to delegate their work. Answers to the other questions can start important conversations about whether more staff development is needed, which meetings lack value, and what kinds of work are most engaging and exciting.

4. Planning for an Uncertain Future

More guts, more grit, more of the self is required to hold positions of leadership today than even a year ago, and the costs exacted from leaders are becoming extreme. Rapidly stabilizing your organization amid tumultuous times is essential, but leading such transformations requires you, as the the boss, to get there first. Where can you go for objective advice, for additional intellectual bandwidth? How can you exude resilience, energy and confidence despite the ambiguity around you?

Realize that you don't have to wrestle with your leadership challenges alone. Create your own group of advisers and professional allies who have the breadth, depth and reach to share lessons learned. There are elite, fire-tested peer groups and service providers equipped with decades of experience and vast networks who can triage with you quickly and effectively. Such groups are commonly referred to as mastermind groups; they can fortify your already seasoned leadership skills and help you stabilize your organization.

Implementing these four tips will not only show a commitment to bringing stability back to the lives of your employees, but will also demonstrate leadership qualities that may inspire even the most pressured and battle-weary executives in your team. Stay strong!

By Francie Dalton  |  August 5, 2009; 3:58 PM ET  | Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I disagree,
All four sugestions listed are the result of failed, tired or dare we say, corrupt leadership.

In fact, if one starts at 4, Foresight(Core Competency)
3-2-1 are reversed and you have a successful business.

That's how a high school drop out see's it and the reason "why" my company rejects my opinion, unless of course, it comes with a big stick.


Posted by: James210 | August 14, 2009 9:58 AM

If you don't sleep much, you don't lose much sleep. Money keeps you awake.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 8, 2009 11:06 AM

On my birthday WPO was at 343.25. Now it's at 475.28. More with less is one thing. More with more is always better. I've been telling people to buy WPO because it's a leader. Seeing is believing. I think it will head much higher. That's what I thought a month ago and people said I was crazy. If I am, so are the numbers. I hope it gets crazier. The future is often less uncertain than we would like to believe. Navigation requires dead-reckoning skills to avoid wrecking the company. I don't get weary.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 8, 2009 11:05 AM

Yeah, I feel real sorry for those poor underpaid, overworked guys at the top who slave all their lives for nothing but a paltry billion or two -- and walk all over thousands of simple-minded proles in the process. Tough life! Let 'em eat cake! Everybody knows we deserve what we get in this life, and if you just believe in yourself, you can get to the top. Har, har! See you Tuesday at the club.

Posted by: jeangerard1 | August 7, 2009 12:24 PM

This article is laughable. Poor CEO's with gut wrenching decisions. It's the bottom line that's looked at. And the dividends that are to be paid out to the shareholders. It used to be that if your profit wasn't so great you said sorry investors we'll turn it around next year. Now it's fire everybody so that we look profitable and outsource. We've seen it time and time again, those in upper management seem to have no clue how to manage for the long term. Let's hope the next generation of upper management learns from the mistakes of this generation. We can only hope.

Posted by: sondysue819 | August 7, 2009 11:11 AM

I'm sorry Francie but I'm not buying any of this "it's lonely at the top" business. I personally know too many people down towards the bottom of the corporate pyramid who have been treated in the most shoddy and disrespectful manner to start feeling sorry for the stressful plight of our CEOs.

If we can outsource our top engineering and technical work to Bangalore and Hyderbad why can't we do the same with managerial positions? Don't tell me that we don't have capable people in India who to do that work.

Posted by: CynthiaD1 | August 7, 2009 2:58 AM

Ms. Dalton addresses issues which are everyday occurrences for most CEO's.

As a leader you are never satisfied with the status quo. There is always room for improvement. That does not necessarily mean doing more with less, it means doing more even better than what you already have. Great productivity increases revenues and provides everyone the opportunity to contribute in a mighty way. Of course it is dependent on the sector, sevice vs. industrial vs. manufacturing, etc.

Those companies that have not kept up with the changes are the ones suffering the most right now. So to are the CEO's and upper management people faced with daily changes. There is no substitute for having the BEST people in place throughout any organization. There is no room for mediocrity when so much is at stake for the shareholders, employees and the community.

There are many like myself who are faced with that daily 3 a.m. wakeup call and sometimes the changes can be dramatic. If you already have an emergency plan, it requires little to implement, but everyone has to be of one mind. Thank you Ms. Dalton for a good article.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | August 6, 2009 10:13 PM

Why is it that the actual workers are the ones who get laid off? No one in management is ever given the axe. How about passing some of the insurmountable workload UP the food chain instead of down?

Posted by: maijja | August 6, 2009 9:26 PM

Love how the author casually slips in the term "subcontracted" without seriously eroding quality. You mean "outsourced", don't you? Would love to see the impact outsourcing has really had on our own unemployment problems. Who really benefits? Surely not the American worker.

Posted by: gracie11 | August 6, 2009 8:03 PM

The disloyalty companies show employees who have worked hard to improve the company, often sacrificing family, friends and quality of life, is breathtaking.

Exuding resilience, energy and confidence while wreaking devastation on employee lives, both those who were "downsized" and those who remain (*imagined* insurmountable workloads? How condescending.) makes it clear that one is not a leader, but just another cubicle sociopath.

Posted by: -dbG- | August 6, 2009 7:21 PM

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