Downsizing or reorganizing a business is usually a stressful time for everyone involved. During these stressful times, you get to see sides of people that you normally don’t see. It’s understandable, really. Highly stressful situations bring out a person’s base instincts and beliefs. If you can hold part of yourself in reserve, you can also learn about yourself and how the process of making difficult decisions expresses itself through yourself. You can grow to be a better leader by simply observing yourself and others, tucking away your experiences for the future. Over the last several years, I’ve see the following patterns enough times to suggest that if you’re ever in a situation where you are charged with leading a downsizing or reorganizing effort, you’ll likely encounter these five things within which you can learn about yourself and others.
First, for those who are directly impacted by your decision(s), you’ll learn what is in their heart and yours. Money and justice are likely to be core themes. You’ll find that those who have a genuine walk with God will not worry so much about money. They know that God will meet their needs. Others don’t have this knowledge or assurance. It’s sad, really, to watch this play out. For myself, there are so many things that are more important than money, but I’m not like most people. Don’t get me wrong – money is important. But in the end, it’s just money. It represents ability to purchase goods and services, true. But it’s just money. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He knows when the sparrow falls. And he knows what we need and He has promised to meet our needs. It is in Him that we live and move and have our being. It’s just money.
From the justice angle, you’ll find that under-performing people who are affected by your decision(s) may claim an injustice in one or more several ways: A) they will remind you of their loyalty to you, B) they will remind you of how much they have sacrificed for you and the organization, C) they will essentially blame you for the poor results of their work and/or D) they will accuse you of being malicious in some way – either you’re out of touch or you’re mean or you’re unethical or something else like this. But ultimately, you’ll be accused of being unjust or unfair in some way. You need to manage yourself before, during and after the stressful event in ways that ensure you can stand before God and honestly say that you have handled yourself as best you could, with as much honesty and integrity as possible. This knowledge will give you what you need to keep going.
Secondly, you’ll see their personal dysfunction, if any, in the ways they communicate and act during the downsizing. Some of your own dysfunction may come through as well. It is never pretty. Some are able to see downsizing decisions within the larger context of what’s happening to the organization. Most cannot. For those in the former group, they will see the downsizing effort as separate and distinct from their performance. Those in the latter group will personalize it and a few might retaliate through legal action, which brings me to my third point.
Thirdly, because of the threat of legal action, you’ll find that you might be cut off from engaging in full communication with your staff. What you say today can have *legal* implications months or years later. What you’ll learn about yourself is whether or not you can work in a position that requires constant self-editing. Not everyone can. As a business owner or leader, you’ll need to be careful what you say, when you say it and to whom. And if there is under-performance, you need to document it and demonstrate that remedial efforts were unsuccessful.
Fourthly, you’ll learn where your priorities are and what your emotional needs are. Here, I’m referring to the tension between a legitimate need to be liked and the need to place the organizations’ needs ahead of any one individuals’ needs. Can you handle being misunderstood by people whom you genuinely like and admire? Can you handle it when people with whom you’ve had a good relationship turn against you or even grow to seriously disrespect and/or hate you? Can you handle people speaking falsely and negatively about you to others – souring their view of your person and work? As a leader, it will happen during these stressful events.
Lastly, you’ll learn who departs well and who doesn’t. You’ll find you respect those who depart well and you’ll be glad to be rid of those who don’t. You’ll find the summation of these experiences will influence your thinking and decision-making in future hires. For example, I recently interviewed a candidate for a position in my company. I ended the interview after 20 minutes and reported back to the referring individual that while the candidate was highly talented and obviously could do a lot of good for my company – especially in terms of revenue generation – I also discerned that this candidate didn’t know how to work in a team where this candidate might not get his/her way all the time. In the short run, this candidate would help us a great deal, but over time, I knew this would hurt my company because of my experience trying to work with people who are “islands”. Over the long haul, the good that they bring to the table is outweighed by the negatives that they infuse into the organization. I’ve seen it enough that I avoid these types of candidates. People like this never depart well. And they *always* sour others on their way out of the organization.
To lead is to decide and to decide – sometimes – is to alienate. Business ownership is not for everyone. I personally enjoy it – even during the tough times. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do than what I’m doing today. But leading a business has required more out of me than what I’ve ever though I could deliver. Good leadership is more about who you are than what you do. If you ever need to lead an organization during a downturn or a redirection, you might want to consider keeping these five points in mind.
Bill English, CEO