Friday, September 8, 2017

Leading in Uncertain Times

Over the past few years I have had the chance to work with a wide variety of executives across a range of companies and industries.  Ranging in size from an emerging technology startup to a multi-billion $ global bio-tech leader, each of the engagements have been unique and challenging experiences, each with unique situations/dynamics that have required me to learn a lot and to tap into a range of experiences that have spanned my 32+year business career.  While the assignments have varied widely, there is a common thread that has become evident over the past few months.  Each executive (or executive team in some instances) that I am working with this year are facing uniquely challenging dynamics in their space and as they work to finish out 2017 and turn their attention to the year ahead, each of my clients are facing very uncertain times ahead.  It's in this context that I have reflected back, and what to share, a few lessons or focus points that might be helpful for leaders (or leadership teams) who are "navigating the waters" of uncertain times.

Optimism:  When times are uncertain, it is tempting for leaders to become frustrated/negative/cynical as they face the uncertain road ahead.  While tempting, this approach is desperately wrong and damaging to an organization.  Leaders need to work on being optimists and being optimistic about the path forward especially if the road ahead is uncertain.  In a previous essay, I commented on this idea of impact of optimistic leaders in the essay "Optimism, a force multipliers for leaders." (  The fundamental idea comes from a quote from former Secretary of State Colin Powell where he connects optimism to morale in the armed forces and how optimism expands the impact of the force deployed. This idea is deeply true in business and especially when things are tough or uncertain.

Flexibility:  It may seem obvious but when you are dealing with moments of change and challenge, you fundamentally don't know exactly what is coming next.  You may be faced with a competitive intrusion, a marketplace shift, an organizational restructuring, etc. and while the dynamics of change and challenge are clear, the path forward may not be evident in the least!  It is in these moments that it is vital for leaders to stay flexible or to "stay loose!"  In a previous essay "Stay loose until rigor counts" ( I comment on the need to "stay open/stay wide/stay loose" in moments of challenge.  Tempted as it might be for leaders or leadership teams to "tighten up" and stay focused on the "tried and true" actions of a business/organization, challenging and uncertain times really call us to stay strategically and tactically "loose" or flexible, being ready to adjust to the unseen changes ahead.

Discipline:  I know that it may seem counter intuitive for me to highlight "discipline" just after advocating "flexibility" but these ideas actually go together well.  Having a regular disciplined process for planning and performance management of a business is very important regardless of the challenges that lie ahead, but doubly so when things are tough and uncertain.  For years I operated a monthly performance management system in past operating roles that worked well over time.  During challenging moments, I "accelerated" the process and moved to a bi-weekly then weekly review process/cadence in order to stay on top of the changes in the business and take action into those changing moments even more quickly.  I wrote about this approach in an early essay, "Ownership, Accountability, & Discipline"  (

Focus:  While I am always an advocate of having a strategic viewpoint, my encouragement is for leaders to keep a tight view or focus on the weeks/months and MAYBE quarters ahead when times are uncertain.  DON'T get to far ahead of yourself (or the market) when dynamics are changing.  A long time friend and co-worker suggested to me that leading in business is like driving a car, and you are always needing to keep your eyes "over the horizon and over the hood." At times you need to look "over the horizon" to anticipate and plan for the marketplace ahead, while at other moments you need to look "over the hood," to insure you avoid the pitfalls immediately ahead.  The amazing reality of driving a car and leading an organization is that you actually need to do both of them (over the horizon and over the hood) at the same time to be effective.  See the essay titled "over the hood & over the horizon"for more on this concept. ) 

Postscript: As a final note, I want to comment on leadership "posture" in changing and challenging times.  While I don't have a previous essay to reference, I want to suggest that is is important for teams to "see" their leaders in tough times more then ever.  Be present at team gatherings, let the organization see you smile and hear your thoughts on the business today and the road ahead even if the path isn't completely clear.  I have seen leaders literally "hunker down" in tough times, staying behind closed doors, rarely being present or even visible and it is always damaging to an organization.  Think about your "posture" with your team and find ways to let your physical presence reflect your commitment to the themes above!