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Uncertainty Ahead

Leadership on Point: Keeping Your Workforce Focused During Uncertain Times

Oct. 24, 2022
How do leaders quiet the noise without seeming insensitive to what is going on in the world and people's lives?

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

We all have a lot on our minds, which can make it hard to stay focused at work. Whether it’s figuring out how to keep talent from flying out the door and addressing “quiet quitting,” or worrying about the stock market drops, it can take a toll. 

As a senior leader, how do you quiet the noise and keep your organization focused, aligned and moving forward during uncertain times? And how do you do that without seeming insensitive to what is going on in the world and in people’s lives?

We have learned effective strategies that help our CEO clients keep their organizations focused and growing during economically challenging times.

1.  Stay Committed to the Vision

A well-communicated vision keeps people and organizations focused, regardless of what is happening around them. Leaders must ensure that clarity and commitment to the vision do not waver. During uncertain times, the best leaders refer to the vision more frequently than in steady times. When the vision seems further out of reach, recommitting to it, engaging employees in talking about it and reminding everyone of why they are doing what they are doing is more important than ever.

Practically, it may seem antithetical to tout big aspirations when faced with many significant challenges—both individually and organizationally. One way to overcome this sense of disconnect is to carve up the vision into smaller parts that feel more attainable. The vision is still big, but it can be tackled in a way that gives people the confidence that they can still work toward it. This approach is much better than reducing the aspiration to fit the uncertain times.

If you aspire to be the market-share leader in your industry, can you lead during difficult times by losing the least amount of share compared to your competitors? If you have a vision for customer service, can you tackle that service promise in the highest-impact part of the company? This is an opportunity to engage the workforce in finding creative ways to still live out the vision even in the circumstances you are facing.

2.  Keep the Road Maps Alive

A vision is only as good as the plans to execute it. It must be much more than inspirational words. It must be translated into roadmaps and action plans that give the organization the confidence to achieve it. 

A company has a grand vision for the electric future of the automotive industry and the role they play in it. Employees feel great about working for a company that is contributing positively to the environment. However, timelines are starting to slip, accountability is lacking and there is an underlying vibe of concern about their ability to meet their goals. “Where are the road maps?” I asked. 

“Hmm, I am not sure”

“Is there a common framework we are supposed to use?” 

“We haven’t looked at those in a while.” 

These are the types of things you hear when people are not laser-focused on specific actions that will drive the business closer to achieving its vision. Lacking an integrated set of road maps from top to bottom puts implementation at risk. The road maps need to be reviewed on a regular basis—put front and center, especially in the face of uncertainty.

But how can you create a road map in the face of uncertainty? That is a common question. The answer lies in leadership’s ability to generate a conversation for possibility with their teams. Can they envision a future state they want to create?  That is the first step. Then they can imagine what it would take to achieve that future state, not limited by what they have done before, or all the reasons something won’t work, but possibilities generated by a commitment for thinking in new ways and stepping out of the proverbial box.  Convening a group to build possible pathways to achieve their goals and aspirations can be an energizing way to work through uncertain times.

For example, if their normal supply chain is limited, what are some new sources they can explore, or alternative designs they can employ that limit the use of restricted parts? What’s possible there? Based on what they know their competition is doing or not doing, how can they leverage that and make a new move they had not considered before? With 30% less workforce due to talent shortages, how can they redesign the process to work around the gaps in talent? A conversation for possibility is being willing to consider “what if” or what would it take in the face of uncertainty, vs. the natural tendency to think of all the reasons you can't do something or something won't work or be resigned to "that's just the way we do it.”

Road maps based on a clear desired end state can generate many paths to the desired results. The roadmap typically has 5-7 workstreams that each lead to a specific result. When you add up the results of the workstreams, you get to your overall end goal. The process of generating the roadmap is what produces the possible paths to achieve the outcome. Then you pick one, commit to that and adjust along the way. When you don't know some things, you commit to what you can as near-term steps and then adapt.

These pathways become reality as the organization starts taking the near-term steps and adapts to what’s next. If you are doing a 2-to-3 year roadmap, then it's typically divided by quarters and near-terms steps are in the next two to three months. They are reviewed quarterly. If the roadmap is for the next four to six months, you may need a weekly set of actions that are reviewed weekly or biweekly.

People tend to think they can't build roadmaps in the face of uncertainty because they don't "know" how to get there. That's exactly when you need to use the future back / possibility conversation approach to build them—this is the Merlin Method. It starts from the future back vs the current state forward and allows a group to collectively build a path/roadmap in a couple of hours that they can then put into action.

3. Talk More, Not Less

During uncertain times, leaders need to resist the tendency to focus on just what has to get done in the next day or the next hour. It is easy to think there is not much you can do to help people given external economic factors. In fact, that's what most people think and that's also what leads to a collective sense of resignation. This is not the energy that you need to sustain your business in the midst of these difficult times.

When people get too focused on their own concerns and don’t have a chance to express their thoughts, it can negatively impact productivity. One solution is to host short forums to discuss what's on employees’ minds. The act of sharing concerns can help remove them, so employees can refocus on what's important. Coming up with a peg board or secure box by the front door where people can write their concerns on a piece of paper and “leave them at the door” can help employees symbolically make the mental shift. Eliminating the sense that each individual is alone with their concerns also helps everyone band together towards a common goal. As leaders, we need to make it OK to talk about the concerns, create forums to do so and look for ways that employees can support each other in service of why they come to work every day.

Focusing your workforce during uncertain times on the vision, using the roadmaps to focus work efforts and engaging in productive dialogue takes work, but the payoff can be great and lead to stronger, more aligned teams focused on moving the company forward. 

Carolyn Hendrickson is CEO of Tandem Group, Inc., a firm that works with CEOs and senior executives to grow their businesses and their people. Tandem Group clients want to transform their companies into high performing organizations by aligning leaders on their growth strategy and ensuring they have the right talent and systems in place to achieve that growth, by adapting and changing over time.

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