Many first-time managers are bollixed by our current economic uncertainty, wondering exactly how they should spend their time when customers aren't buying and inventories are piling up faster than you can say "Bernanke!" A few suggestions:
Look Busy. The way to personally survive a downturn is to look like a human action figure, a kind of GI Joe in a pinstriped suit. If you work in a plant, buy a clipboard, fill it with a sheaf of rumpled papers and start walking really fast, stopping occasionally to look at a piece of equipment while you're making notes. If you work in an office, get yourself a leather portfolio and do the same, substituting cubicles and co-workers for equipment. Make sure, too, to pull out your phone or BlackBerry at random moments and make important-looking calls or tap furiously with your thumbs (You're just leaving a message to yourself to buy beer, but nobody else needs to know). Remember: The last place you want to be seen is at your desk, doing something as nerdy as trying to think your way out of a crisis. Your bosses want action, damn it, they want it now, and they don't really care what it is, as long as they can tell their bosses about it. Go!
Announce Expense Reductions. Well, duh. If revenues are down, you've got to cut costs -- except you signed all those really dumb long-term contracts without escape clauses, and you're in a business with huge fixed costs, and the financial system is so outdated you don't really know what your allocations are anyway. And besides, even if you could rapidly cut expenses, you wouldn't see the benefits until '09 -- long after you've been fired, right? Au contraire! The trick isn't to actually reduce expenses, but to make as much noise as possible (press releases, conference calls) about all the pathetic little steps you can take. Freeze employee travel! Increase the health plan's co-pays and deductibles! No more free coffee in the break room! Oh, sure, the naysayers will blather on about how measures like these gut employee morale and kill next year's sales, blah blah blah. Please: This is about your survival now. Next year is just a shareholder's dream.
Go on a Fact-Finding Tour. It's going to be pretty depressing around your plant or office with no orders, no budgets and no coffee. It's also going to be increasingly hard to look busy, so do what any good executive or congressman does when the going gets tough: Get going! Announce a "Customer Intimacy" initiative that involves you flying all over the country taking CEOs and VPs of your best clients to play golf and eat enormous steaks at the finest resorts and restaurants.Take careful notes of what they say (e.g., "Our own sales stink, so we aren't buying anything from you right now.") and build a "Report From the Customer Frontlines" PowerPoint that you can present to senior management upon your return. Let's face it: It's not like you were going to get much of a raise this year anyway, so you might as well take it out in barter as martinis and foie gras. Dessert, anyone?
Fire People. Messy but probably unavoidable, as your bonus-addicted bosses keep screaming about headcount and variable costs, yada yada yada. I mean, sure, you could just train more during downtime, or streamline processes for when times get better, or maybe even tell people to work on all that innovation stuff to reposition the company for the future, but how's that going to play during your salary review? Especially when the guy just before you says that he cut staff by 25% (omitting, of course, that screw-ups and the hidden overtime to fix them are now up 50%, more than reversing any savings). You might as well put a sign on your own back that says "Fire Me!"
And what good would that do for the company?
John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.