Committed for Better Business

The movie we are marshals tells the story of the rebuilding of the Marshall University football program after a tragic plane crash in 1970 that nearly killed the entire team and coaching staff. The president of the university was on the verge of suspending the program when the students and the community persuaded him to rebuild. Matthew McConaughey plays the coach hired to rebuild the program.

In one scene from the movie, McConaughey throws out the old playbook and devises a new offensive scheme. He realizes that the playbook was designed for a different time and a different team with different abilities. His current team needs a different approach to have a chance of success, as they are clearly failing by using the old playbook. As a coach, he makes a quick decision and quickly implements a new playbook that immediately begins to build confidence in the team. While it takes a few games for the team to get it, they eventually win again. While Marshall’s story is about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of tragedy, this scene also contains a great lesson for leaders in today’s uncertain environment. If the environment has changed and we are going to be successful, that implies that the old behavior will not work. If you are the leader, you must do more than cast a vision or rally the troops with a pep talk. You need to identify what new behavior is required and help your team learn that new behavior as quickly as possible. In recent months, I have heard the leaders of various companies make bold pronouncements that “failure is not an option.” When listening to this message, do you feel your morale, confidence and optimism improve? Do you feel better about your company’s prospects? Me neither. Here are four reasons why this approach is a big mistake:

  • First, it is intellectually dishonest, so no one believes it. Failure is, in fact, a possible outcome. The intent of this statement is to reassure employees that the business will survive and that the employees will be okay, but this may not be true. Failure may not be a likely outcome and certainly not a desirable outcome, but it is within the realm of possibility.
  • Second, it insults the intelligence of your employees. Why go to all the effort and expense to recruit knowledge workers, who are supposedly very smart, but then treated like idiots? Smart people understand that uncertainty exists. Saying otherwise is insulting.
  • Third, because this statement is often delivered with great confidence and arrogance, it shuts down a meaningful dialogue. This approach suggests that by the sheer will of the leader, we will prevail. By saying “failure is not an option,” the leader is really trying to have the last word on the issue. The leader is frankly tired of dealing with the question and would rather the people actually get back to work.
  • Fourth, this statement absolves employees of liability. By taking the weight of the option off the table, it puts it all on the shoulder of the leader. This approach is the exact opposite of empowerment and actually increases stress among employees. Stress occurs in high-demand, low-control situations, and increasing demands on people without giving them a reason to believe they’re in control doesn’t work.

So how can leaders use the lessons of we are marshals to deal with economic uncertainty and anxiety more effectively?

  1. Acknowledge the pain, frustration, and fear of the situation.While the failure of a business or the loss of a job is not life-threatening like the Marshall tragedy, it is immensely painful. Recognize that employees are wondering about their future, but remaining inactive in the face of fear is not a solution.
  2. Recognize that we face significant uncertainty and that it will likely continue for some time.There are multiple contingencies that depend on the general economy, customers, competition, regulatory changes and possible mergers or acquisitions. There may be several scenarios that we can imagine, some good, some not so good. It is up to us to make decisions and take action to capitalize on the best opportunities available.
  3. Honestly assess your current situation and communicate the truth.Clarify your current cash position and how long you can operate under your current structure. Do you have weeks, months or years of cash? Show that you have the right resources to operate without being paralyzed by fear. This approach will help everyone in the organization to understand reality and move forward.
  4. as the coach in Marshallmake sure you have the right playbook and the right gear for this environment. Clarify your best market opportunities and clients to focus on during this period. Based on your current product and service capabilities, where do you focus? For example, if you have an installed base of customers, consider how to maintain or expand your business with them. If you’re looking for new clients, make sure your value proposition and lead generation activities focus on the best opportunities. Make sure you have the right team in the right roles and make decisions quickly if changes are needed.
  5. Accelerate your operational planning process so everyone in your organization knows their roles, responsibilities, and goals for the near future.Instead of long-term plans, these should be ninety-day plans that are reviewed within a quarter. It is essential that each person have clear direction about their contribution. Hold your direct reports accountable for ensuring that each person they supervise has an individual action plan.
  6. Specify what you will NOT do. Clarify which markets, customers and opportunities you are going to No focus during this period. It is essential to focus all of your time, energy, and resources on only the best customer opportunities in this environment. Identify specific ways of trading that may have worked for you in the past, but won’t work in this environment. “Keep doing what you’ve been doing” is a recipe for disaster.

So how do you handle the question “are we going to survive?” Let me suggest a model for what you can say. My recommendation is to outline very specific actions that are required to be successful. The time for far-reaching vision statements is not now. Try something like this: “I understand that all of you are concerned about the current environment, how it will affect our business, and what it means for you. You may be waiting for me to tell you that bankruptcy is not an option. We are currently generating (or burning cash), so our risk level is high/medium/low and we are confident that we can operate for at least one year. Technically, failure is always an option if we fail to execute our plan, that’s the nature of business. So let’s focus on the details of our plan: We will focus on specific customers and offers. Be sure to name them here. This means that our sales and marketing organization must immediately refocus our lead generation, prospecting and sales activities on this group of customers. We are not going to focus on other short-term opportunities.

Our product development organization will focus on these specific projects for future growth, name them. Our operations groups will ensure that we deliver on all of our commitments effectively and efficiently. We are all responsible for managing our cash effectively. All of these details require each person in the organization to play a specific role. Over the next thirty days, we’ll make sure these details are translated into individual action plans for everyone, and each of you will be asked for your best input on how we can innovate, execute, and thrive in this environment. My direct reports are responsible for making this planning process happen. I welcome any additional questions about any aspect of the business and promise to check in weekly as events unfold. I appreciate the commitment that each of you is making to the company.Marshall’s coach challenges the players to “put him on the line until the final whistle blows, and if you do, we can’t lose.” As a leader, you cannot ask for this commitment until you work on a specific game plan. that you can win Do you have a specific game plan? If not, it’s time to get to work.

Copyright © 2009 Aligned Action, Inc. All rights reserved.

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