Leading in a Downturn

While in New York this week, I had the privilege of sitting down with some other small business owners to discuss the challenges of running a business in this economic downturn. Everyone knows the challenges of balancing income vs. expenses, long term projections, etc. A new challenge for many leaders is not only how to stay motivated themselves, but how to keep staff motivated during such difficult economic times.

Amid layoffs, pay cuts, cost discipline changes and tumultuous financial markets, maintaining a positive attitude can be challenging. Business leaders are tasked with the additional burden of assuring staff, partners and clients that things will be fine. But in an environment like today’s, that’s one sentiment that’s difficult to promise.

While you can’t always make guarantees to people when they ask for one, you can strive to be as open and honest as possible about challenges, solutions and potential changes. However, the truth is, employees aren’t always capable of understanding the decision path no matter how much information you provide. So how do you keep employees (who are often times facing heavier work loads than ever due to colleagues being laid off) motivated and positive? It’s certainly not an easy task.

Business owners are faced with making tough decisions – and managing the consequences of such decisions. Laying employees off is never an enjoyable task and is often viewed – no matter how delicately considered and addressed – as a personal attack. Employees get angry and, in today’s instant Internet age, their anger is often publicly displayed in places like Facebook statuses and Twitter updates.

So what is a business owner to do? A few recommendations include:

– Talk. Sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many C-level executives I’ve met that leave such delicate and important conversations to email.

Be honest. Honesty doesn’t mean you have to share every nitty gritty detail but it does mean that you are up front about decision making – how and why you’ve taken a certain direction or may have to.

– Be aggressive. As a business leader, you are charged with taking care of the people who work for you. If customers are paying late, clients are taking advantage of staff or angry ex-employees are spreading false rumors, know when to take action and how to do so professionally.

– Be persistent. In times like these, many people tend to want to curl up in a corner and shut their eyes until all the craziness goes away. As a leader you need to make sure you are addressing concerns with employees, even if they don’t want to talk about them – help ease their minds even if they aren’t capable of expressing their fears.

– Be courageous. It takes guts to lead a business during a downturn. Ignore your detractors, don’t fret over unprofessional competitors or angry ex-employees. Keep your head up, maintain your integrity and march forward with your principles in tact. Not everyone can comprehend or ever understand the enormous responsibilities – and tough decisions – you face as a business owner.

– Keep moving. Show customers, partners, colleagues, staff and the industry that you are tenacious by continuing to grow, to innovate and to take intelligent risks. By doing so you will no doubt inspire and encourage those around you – and your business will not only survive, but thrive.

What have you done to maintain motivation or how has your employer exemplified leadership during these tough times? I asked this question earlier this morning on Twitter and received a couple of replies, below. I’ll share more as they come in but we’d love to hear from you, too.