Brandt On Leadership -- What's Your Problem?

Whatever it is, it won't go away. So exchange it for a better one.

During this seemingly interminable downturn, it's easy to feel stuck. You've cut expenses so far that employees are worried you'll start charging them rent for their chairs. You've taken on so many extra duties that your spouse and children think of you as a harried guest instead of an actual family member. You've re-worked your value proposition so many times, you're not sure what business you're in. After looking at your sinking 401(k), you're wondering if maybe, just maybe, you'd be better off investing retirement dollars in lottery tickets and a Big Gulp at the 7-11. Relax. And pay attention to Dr. Brandt's Theory of Business Relativity, which says: Problems are a constant in business, whether economic times are good or bad. The best you can hope (and work) for is to constantly exchange one set of problems for a better set of problems. Here's an example: I sit on the advisory board of a small manufacturing company that has suffered through years of declining sales. After a recent acquisition that boosted capacity, cash flow and profits, I asked the owner how things were going. He shook his head as he recounted the difficulties of integration and in mollifying the angry (i.e., formerly unpaid) supplier base of the acquired firm. To which I responded: "Congratulations on acquiring a much higher-class set of problems than you ever had before." He laughed, then went off to find an even better set of problems -- perhaps related to expansion. How do you find a better set of problems? Three ways: Expand your scope of vision: Most people put limits on themselves and their businesses that they themselves aren't even aware of. Every time you say "We can't do that" or "They'll never go for that," you put yourself and your company into a box of your own making. If your company is small, ask yourself how you would act if it were five times that size -- and figure out how to do it. I once worked at a small company whose research showed that it had 75% market share -- even as it lost money year after year. After we redefined the market in such a way that we had less than 5% market share, we were able to retool our product and double sales in less than three years. The same principle applies to bad bosses. If you have one, simply start acting -- within reason and with appropriate deference -- as if you report not to your bad boss, but to his boss. Two things will happen: First, you'll feel better. Second, since most bad bosses have some element of bully in their souls, when you start acting like a colleague and not a cowed employee, a bad boss will treat you with respect. Modify your work habits: The toughest thing for hardworking, diligent leaders during a downturn is to realize that they need to stop being so hardworking and diligent. It's easy to convince yourself that two more hours at the computer screen or another three memos will turn things around, but what we're really trying to do is assuage our fears that hard times won't end and our guilt at being among the lucky ones who still have jobs. All those extra hours, though, rob us and our companies of the downtime that leads to creativity. Take an hour to walk or an afternoon to play golf. Get reacquainted with the small people in your house who call you Mommy or Daddy. Stare out the window at a rainy afternoon. Do anything so long as it's not business -- and be amazed at the clarity of thought and innovative ideas that appear out of nowhere the next day. Change your attitude: Each of us has moments when we think that our company might be a pretty good business if it weren't for the damn customers, employees and owners. But consider this: If everything ran smoothly, why would they need you? And if they didn't need you, would your set of problems be better -- or worse? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

TAGS: The Economy
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