The Best Ways to Lead During Tough Times

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The snow is already falling out my window here in northern Montana—and Powell is stepping up to deliver another jumbo rate hike. Layoffs and “shock” increases in job openings dominate the news cycle. This can only mean one thing.

Winter isn’t coming; it’s here.

Yes, I’m known to partake in overtly melodramatic foreplay on career strategy and macroeconomic policy. Still, during executive interviews, my clients have seen an uptick in “How would you lead through difficult times?” questions. 

Do hiring managers know something the general population has been reluctant to accept themselves? Are they anticipating these difficult times and hiring accordingly? How does your narrative shift to ensure your family is protected and the teams you lead perform?

Opportunity In Hardship

At least for the more deserving executives worth their salt, the silver lining is that adversity does not build character; it reveals it. 

Trying times will be the great equalizer—or reality checker—for those executives who don’t belong.

And you know what I mean. How do I put it?   

Those executives who selfishly and negligently negotiated their careers into positions of power prematurely while grasping at the tendrils of the great resignation and hiring desperation. 

Yeah, those execs. They won’t hold onto their positions much longer if times become increasingly tumultuous.

I, for one, take no responsibility for helping some of the ‘prematurely ambitious’ get there. Don’t hate the player; hate the game.

A Playbook For Difficult Times

One of the wonderful rewards of leading a team is that you can’t always predict the severity of the difficult times you face, but you can control how you and your team respond—COVID, anyone? 

Having an idea of the stages of leadership to follow through difficult times can be a godsend later. The following is a procedure that a client and I communicated during a recent executive FAANG interview (with positive feedback, for what it’s worth).   

1) Anticipate 

While it’s impossible to predict everything, most executive leaders can anticipate rough waters ahead. Of course, some lean on intuition and gut feeling, but today, the best leaders can expect challenges and begin winning arguments across the organization using data as their foundation. 

The critical distinction here is that influential leaders don’t pretend challenges won’t cross their path. That’s naivety in its most pronounced state. They don’t wish the pain on others either. They hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

2) Acknowledge

So you’ve anticipated that macroeconomic conditions would impact your revenue forecast—you proactively riffed staff, informed your cross-functional unit leaders, and presented to the board. But guess what? Despite your best efforts, the proverbial shit has hit the fan, and your team missed Q3 by 10%.  

Now what?  

You own it. The situation is now more challenging, and you may not know how to survive, but you also can’t go on pretending that everything will be okay and go away. Optimism is essential, but you’ll lose the respect of your team if you hide from reality. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge the scenario your team faces, exercise a calm and confident demeanor, articulate the efforts you’ve already put in motion, and work together for phase 3, creating a plan.

3) Plan

Even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, there is always an action that you can take to make the experience better for your team. Sometimes the moves you make aren’t popular but must be done for the team’s survival. After all, what’s bad for the hive is bad for the bee anyway.

Build the plan that is necessary to overcome the challenges you face. Inform your planning with metrics or data whenever possible to avoid subjectivity and bias. Plus, data helps you CYA later when influencing support. Consider cross-functional OKRs and how your plan will impact other business units as appropriate.

4) Communicate

Share your game plan with key stakeholders and team members. Back it by numbers where and when possible to help others understand how you came to your conclusions. Communicating the numbers that need to improve can help the team understand how to monitor progress. If you can share your plan of attack in measurable terms, such as OKRs and KPIs, you’ll have your finger on the pulse when adjustments need to be made to stay on track.

5) Focus

Extracurriculars and nice-to-haves are a thing of the past when times get rough. It’s your job as an executive to batten down the hatches. You may need to dig deep and schedule significantly more 1:1 conversations with direct reports and key team members—or everyone you lead if the scenario calls for it. 

If you’ve been lax on loosely designed 1:1 meetings, the onus is on you to provide the structure for more effective conversations to keep the focus.

Burn The Playbook

I’d be irresponsible if I said this playbook always worked. Unfortunately, the reality is that even the strongest, highest-educated, most prepared, kindest, and most well-intentioned leaders will experience failure. 

The real silver lining is that leaders out there with their heads on the chopping block are putting themselves in a position to accept immense pressure and responsibility—and they’re learning at an accelerated rate because they are often putting themselves in uncomfortable situations.

I have found success with my clients sharing this playbook in interviews; however, remember that if the defense surprises you by showing a blitz, don’t be afraid to call the audible, snap the ball to Patrick Mahomes, and let him do his thing. 

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