Leading in difficult times [18/12/2009]
Well, another year is drawing to a close. And quite a roller coaster it has been. I attended an alumni event at Cranfield in October that helped me grasp the global economic issues and opened my eyes about the severity of the UK's situation. I almost wrote a newsletter to share it at the time, but was concerned about how to do so ethically and sensibly.
Doom and gloom would encourage fear - not a very resourceful state to be in. When we humans perceive a threat, we tend to revert to our lower brain functions (what some people call our "dog" brain) and do what we need to do to survive - which generally speaking is neither clever nor attractive. We panic, our higher brain functions shut down and we can take very selfish, short-term actions that we later regret - putting ourselves and others at greater risk. Growing up I remember my Dad, a responsible parent during the cold war who took seriously the threat of nuclear holocaust, emphasising the first rule when something goes wrong - "Don't panic"! He may not have known about brain functions, but he certainly knew the value of keeping one's head.
On the other hand, to say absolutely nothing would support a less-than-helpful, but not uncommon, response to seriously bad news: - denial. "Everything will be fine, see, other countries are in recovery, we must be soon too. It's not as bad as we thought". No doubt similar sentiments were expressed on the Titanic. Not that we are on the Titanic. But the UK economy is in a pretty precarious state.
The IMF considers an economy to be in serious trouble when its borrowings go above 5% of GDP. The UK's are now in the region of 15%. Experts think it could take 30 years to rebalance. The prevailing view is that we are in a double-dip recession and we haven't yet come out of the first dip. So there is a lot more and possibly worse to come over the new few years. It will be longer in duration than most in our annually-focused market-driven corporate world might care to contemplate. The difficulties are likely to reach beyond the next term of Government into the one following that, and beyond.
What does that mean for the people we employ, the customers we support and the communities we serve? What do we need to see clearly, not exaggerate or diminish? It's not easy to articulate. And it's not easy to know who to trust or believe. But here are some likelihoods that are a reasonably safe bet.
Debt will become more expensive, taxes will rise, jobs will become harder to find, many salaries will flatten. Increasingly people will feel the pinch; and many more households, businesses and communities than thus far will really suffer. The burden on the State will increase, yet there will be less in the pot to support it.
So if this is not to be a note of doom, what are the opportunities? What can anyone do in response to such unfolding circumstances? I haven't got all the answers, far from it, but here are some things that leaders may wish to consider if they want to influence things in a positive way.
· Think thrift: spend on essentials, question everything else; if you can, invest in what makes you sustainably healthy and effective - this will put your organisations ahead when the tide turns; reduce debt; use only the resources you need to. Be creative. Model to others that personal qualities and behaviours are what matters not labels or marques.
· Review: rethink why you do what you do, what you do and how you do it. Do you add real value? Can you be smarter and more effective in your infrastructure and systems? Can you work with your clients to deliver more with less? Can you inspire others by sharing how you do this?
· Consider each other: if others have less you may be called upon to share more. What can you do without? What would you be prepared to give? How does that feel? What does that tell you about what really matters to you?
With any luck (and lots of determination) the trials we face offer a time of firming and testing, maturing and strengthening. Not all enterprises will survive. But those that do will probably look back and say - "it was the making of us".
Wishing you and yours a very happy and peaceful Christmas.