Sometimes the leader who has battled through adversity may struggle when peace sets in and opportunities beckon. Surviving the recession was about caution and defensiveness, creating lean organisations and cutting costs. But that’s not what is required when the focus shifts to seizing the moment and growing revenue. A directive, lead-from-the-front style may no longer be what’s needed. What’s more, a survival-focussed leader risks suffocating growth by leaving the organisation too lean. Is such a leader right person to lead the organisation forward? It’s a difficult question to ask yourself, but vital if you want to go for growth.
The big challenge is getting everyone to think about growth, rather than survival. Take a big deep breath. This is a classic opportunity for an offsite with your team. Think deeply about what kind of business you want to be in the next four years. Don’t stint on this: it’s a watershed moment and worth spending some time on.
It’s important to give individuals the space to have their say about these crucial issues. It’s motivating for your battle-worn troops: they’ve helped you through the hard times (and if you haven’t acknowledged this, make sure you do), now allow them to contribute to the company’s future course. Trust in delegation may have been eroded during the recession. One signal of your confidence in the market is your confidence in others.
It’s also an opportunity to pool ideas from across the business and identify ‘out-of-box’ thinkers. You may have some latent stars who are eager to contribute. Let everyone have their say and keep an open mind: some ideas may be unworkable, but others can be adapted and one or two may be gems. Part of building up confidence is thinking innovatively – but also realistically.
Your leadership and motivational style needs to demonstrate that the business is now ready to take risks. You want to move from a reactive style to a proactive one, and that starts with the company culture and behaviour.
Don’t push people too hard too fast, though – you’ll spook the horses. Take a gradual approach and lead by example: people will follow that. You’ll be asking different questions now. How and where do we expand? What new products or services could we develop?
This is also a good time to undertake a detailed competitor analysis: who is moving and shaking in your industry? What can you learn from them? How do you import some of that thinking into your business?
R&D and new product development will be priorities now. So consider whether you’ve got the right products or services for the changed environment.
Another big issue is developing a new talent pool. Most companies are going through this, having lost their stars during cutbacks. There’s now a general shift in attitude to talent: during the recession, our hearts told us that people were the priority, but our heads might have ruled when it came to cutting costs. I think leaders are now more convinced of the value of talent, at least in creative and knowledge industries.
Don’t fear the prospect of growing too fast: the recession cleared out much of the dead wood in most markets and only the fittest survived. So if you’re among them, move fast, don’t be patient. Adopt an agile mindset, building projects quickly around motivated people. First-mover advantage still matters. I believe you should sprint, rather than dawdle, into growth.
Dealing with ambiguity
Remember, though, that ambiguity and volatility are now commonplace in the business landscape. Every business leader must learn to operate in a climate of uncertainty. The election next May, mounting fears of a serious terrorist attack, predictions of extreme weather over the next few months – these are all issues that have a dampening effect on the spirits. It’s human nature: our attitude and energy is coloured by whether it’s sunny or miserable. I suspect if you did a cyclical survey, there would be more start-up activity in spring or summer than in winter. We tend to cocoon ourselves in winter months.
So motivating people at this time of year is even more important. Praise – whether public or private -– is hugely valuable. So is gratitude. Contemporary business people often overlook the importance of a simple ‘thank-you’. But those two little words can make a big difference.
Nor are leaders immune to the blues. Now is not the time to hibernate: seek out the support of a network of peers, and look for fresh inspiration from speakers or colleagues who will keep you buoyed up.