It’s clear that the current recession is not going to be a fleeting phenomenon. Managers need to learn how to lead under extraordinary marketplace pressures and decreased morale, amid pay cuts, spending cuts on strategic projects, and staff reductions. As a leader, you can get through this mess in a positive manner if you take the time to think carefully about the needed cuts, how are you are going to deliver the news, and how you can keep people motivated and productive on the job after the axe has fallen.
1: Be objective and fair and gather facts
Before you make any critical decisions — such as whether to shutter a project or cut 10 percent of your IT staff — evaluate all the options as if you were analyzing a software package, so that you can make a cogent case for your plan. If you’re choosing between IT projects, “Think of it like a debate class,” advises Kathy Gallo, managing principal of New York City-based executive coaching firm Marshall Goldsmith Partners. Assess choices with a thorough fact-gathering, prioritization, and analysis process, not a gut reaction.
2: Allow your staff to help make the tough decisions
Making painful cuts might be a little easier if employees have a hand in shaping them. Maybe some flextime or telecommuting would help employees cope with salary or benefits reductions. Helen Cooke, managing director with executive coaching firm Cooke Consulting Group in Haddon Heights, NJ, tells of a story she heard recently in which an executive brought his staff into a room and asked them if they would rather the company do some layoffs or require a 10 percent cut in pay and benefits. (They jumped at the latter.) “It’s all about being creative and open to the possibilities without spending a lot of money.” She recommends brainstorming sessions with employees and/or soliciting ideas through an internal web site.
3: Talk often — and do it in person
Yes, you’ve heard it before, but it’s true: Get out there and talk to your people often about what’s going on with the company, impending consequences, and what’s positive in the company’s future. Experts concur that this is something leaders don’t do enough of, or handle the wrong way. Be as transparent as possible. Don’t tell white lies. Don’t surprise everyone with bad news if you’ve known about it for weeks. Don’t send out an e-mail when you could organize a Web conference or a group meeting. All of these things erode trust and make managers seem like impersonal clods, which makes for an unhappy workforce.
4: Walk the walk
Are you going to Hawaii with your spouse a month after announcing layoffs? Maybe you shouldn’t. Did you cut yourself out of the salary reduction plan? Maybe you should reconsider. You get the picture.
5: Get creative about cuts
If there’s any possible way you can save money without affecting your staff, look at those options first. Evaluate vendors: Are you getting the best deal? Maybe it’s worth hiring an operational consultant to ensure you can get better contracts. Are you operating in a “green” fashion in terms of power management on your computer and networking equipment, minimizing use of lights and heat, reducing paper usage through double-sided printing, and so on? Again, ask your staff for ideas. These days, they might care less about free soda and coffee.
6: Be yourself
When life gets choppy, some people have a tendency to take on a different persona to make things all better. Think happy! Be energetic! If the cheerleader style is your normal modus operandus, says Cooke, feel free to crank it up a notch for the benefit of your grousing employees. Take them out for a beer on Friday afternoon. Hire a comedian for an hour’s worth of fun. Give a pumped-up talk over a brown bag lunch. Because the power of positive thinking is huge. But if you’re not the first to laugh at jokes, and you’re cranky before having three cups of coffee, don’t act out of character. Your people will see through it pronto. (However, do take your team out for a beer on Friday afternoon, regardless.)
7: Do layoffs right
If you have to do layoffs, you owe it to your staff to spend the maximum effort possible in doing them accurately (this means you’ve done a thorough analysis of options), sensitively, and with full disclosure about how and why the cuts were made. “If executives aren’t good at communicating that downline, it can have a really negative impact and foster distrust,” says Cooke. She also advises that companies not cut corners on severance packages, and if possible, offer some sort of benefits continuation or outplacement services. “If people staying at the company have a sense that, wow this is unfair, they may not stay loyal to you.”
8: Don’t give up on professional development
This falls under the category of “Don’t ignore the employees who have been saved.” Those left behind after layoffs are mind-boggled about their own future, not to mention the extra workload they will undoubtedly have to handle. Give them the benefit of your time through 1-on-1 meetings to discuss their issues, concerns, and career goals. Provide talented employees the opportunity to job shadow, cross-train, or even simply sit in on meetings with other groups to expose them to different career paths, Cooke advises. Sometimes, the best education is free.
9: Keep up the fight for business alignment and ROI
In this economic climate, there’s no better time to stay true to the core IT goals of delivering business value and maximizing efficiencies. The more you can show you are being responsible and strategic to your staff and higher-ups, the better for everyone. “We are keeping our heads down and making sure what we have continues to demonstrate the value technology brings to the business,” says Bruce Whitely, CIO of beer distributor J.J. Taylor Inc., based in Jupiter, FL. “To this end we are implementing a task-tracking tool to better document what technology does on a day to day basis.”
10: Look to the future
Everyone is stuck in the present right now: survival. For a change, spend a few hours each week thinking about, and talking about, your company and department’s future. What can you do that will deliver unique value to customers (internal and external) when the economy begins to recover? What can you do now that will help the business survive until then? This can be a positive and healthy way to deal with the stress of the moment. “Reminding ourselves and each other and staff about what is in our control can be very helpful,” Cooke says.– Larry Dignan