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Thursday, December 04, 2008

How To Up Communication During This Down Time

Whew! Your job didn’t get eliminated. Your boss is gone and so is half your staff, but you still have a paycheck and benefits … at least for awhile.

Two other positives to ponder:

When you have nothing, you may realize you didn’t really need something. (Preach it, brother!) It’s true. You can now cut those budget line-items you inherited that eat up trees and your time but have little traction with audiences: for starters, the holiday card, pocket calendar, and reprints of aren’t-we-wonderful booklets.

You also have an unusual opportunity -- though painful -- to test your leadership mettle, which you may not have done on your own. Maybe you will even re-engineer yourself. A CEO boss of mine used to say that anyone can manage in the good times, but …

Back to the uncomfortable news. Here are scenarios that are likely to befall you.

If you lead a headquarters and/or service department, the “o” in overhead just got capitalized. Every sale not made or order cancelled means that your colleagues are struggling that much more to pay for your existence. They like you, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that they don’t quite know what you do and, if they have some knowledge they’re not sure that what you do is worth doing. It’s not that you have a bull’s eye on your back; it’s that you have to demonstrate your worth more aggressively but authentically as well.

While employees have been cut, expectations have not. Whatever your group had been doing, no one higher up or sideways is thinking that your output will go down. In fact, if your team complemented or coordinated the work of counterparts in other departments, probably those counterparts have departed. Expect a batch of hurting managers to be calling with that team-spirit pitch for help.

Your remaining staff is experiencing a death in the family. Their colleagues/friends are gone, the programs that defined much of their identity are gone, and whatever predictability there had been about the future (though a delusion) is gone.

  • Some of them have now become super-busy real fast out of fear of looking dispensable.
  • Others have gone catatonic, thinking that a low-profile keeps them below the radar.
  • Still others scan for scraps of rumors and quibble among themselves as to who really should have been let go.
What all of them share are a degree of survivor guilt and a deep-rooted sense – or hope -- that maybe, just maybe, they will survive all of this mess.

Your assignment is to move the group from survive to thrive -- not an easy role but, then again, you are a leader. You can start by setting three priorities:

  1. Focus much of your time over the next month on intra-staff communication. Win over your staff to possibility thinking and they will encourage others to tough it out. Shift their focus gently from empathy toward colleagues who have exited to the special challenges that require their resourcefulness.

  2. Focus communication on the positive without being pollyannaish, on honesty without naiveté. Stick to the facts about the organization's unfolding financial situation and cite comments and stories from seasoned, credible leaders with survival experience.

  3. Focus on producing more results with fewer resources. You don’t want to just boost morale, which can be fleeting, but bolster a spirit of ingenuity, ideas, productivity, and results.

Consider implementing these five ideas:

  1. Develop a Survive and Thrive kit, which should include your reconstituted 12-month plan and whatever clever ideas can convey the more-with-less message. Make it upbeat but not silly.

  2. Direct the staff to convert the 12-month plan into individual performance objectives. But change the format. Tell them you want those objectives in a resume as if it were written one year from now. What do they expect to accomplish that will convince a potential employer they had produced impressive results under pressure? If you effectively lead the group to greater productivity in this downtime, they will stay with you for the long-term.

  3. Share with your staff the job descriptions of former staffers and, for each one, ask them to prioritize the three most important responsibilities, given current conditions. Then ask who would want to take all or some of those responsibilities as a way to stretch themselves professionally while keeping the department and organization functioning.

  4. Spring for a half-day from a skilled social marketing consultant and have him/her review your new 12-month plan and explore with the team about how to reroute efforts and increase effectiveness through viral communication, social networks, and other cost-efficient sources. Make sure the nodes in that network are those most likely to be suspect of your department’s value.

  5. Identify external resources --- whose charges these days are negotiable -- who can support those departments that are looking to you for help. When they have to pick up the tab, they may quickly develop priorities and back away.
How to boost team morale after a layoff
Mass layoffs can lead to ’survivor guilt’
Layoff Aftermath: Learn how to minimize the aftereffects of layoffs

Illustration by: Joan M. Mas