Lessons in survival – a critical leadership skill

Lessons in Survival – a Critical Leadership Skill

To survive – to hang in there – to keep your head while all around you others are losing theirs – to stay in play – is a critical skill of leaders. Let’s face it – even the most astute, successful person will suffer setbacks, and surviving and overcoming those setbacks is the true measure of a leader.

To some, survival sounds like a skill for a loser. And, frankly, there are many who try to survive by holding back, by not taking risk, by getting as invisible as possible. Those are not the behaviors of leaders – they are not what survival means in this article – and they lead to failure.

An example of survival and leadership:

A client had a business unit that was doing badly. Unprofitable, losing customers, over budget. The business unit leader had been in the job for six months – not long enough to have created the mess, but long enough to be held accountable for it. Her predecessor had held the job for ten years – and then retired with honors. There were many days when she felt like giving up. She felt that she was more a victim than anything else. She had been a top performer in every other assignment given her. She felt she had gone from the top 5 percent in her company to being perceived as a loser by former colleagues. Everyone likes a winner – no one wants to be associated with what looks like a loser. No one was going to rescue her from this situation – she was either going to sink or swim.

She felt she had four choices:

1 – She could quit and find another employer – she was highly regarded in the market.

2 – She could stay and look at who to blame. She could try to cash in on her former accomplishments and get a transfer – or not be held accountable – or be given lots of slack.

3- She could let the situation tear her down, wallow in self pity and blame fate, and turn into a part of the problem – rather than be part of the solution.

4 – She could do what she had to do to survive the situation – stay afloat, give herself a timetable, work to improve performance, and then decide where her future lay.

She chose the last alternative. She reviewed it with her boss – he agreed with her. For the first time in her career she was faced with stabilizing a losing business, rather than growing a winning one. What a difference! Going from winning as a strategy to surviving – as a strategy – at least as a first step strategy.

She shared her survival strategy with her staff – and watched their reactions. They ranged from acceptance to indifference. This unit was part of a much larger company, and some of her staff had friends in other parts of the organization that could “take care of them.” She let some people transfer to other parts of the business – got rid of some others – and brought in key people who saw their new positions as a chance to prove themselves.

She put together a “stop the bleeding” short term plan with goals and measures that could be quantified and tracked and reported on regularly. No “BHAGS” here ( Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). Her boss gave his support -while keeping the situation at arm’s length. The plan was shared with the people in the business unit, and every person was expected to establish goals that contributed to the plan. Some did – some didn’t. The plan worked – at least to the extent that the bleeding stopped and the business returned to marginal profitability in six months. No celebrations were held – but the leader and her staff were pleased with their progress -they knew just how much had been accomplished – although no one else seemed to share their emotions.

As the six month plan unfolded, it became clear to her that some significant investments in capital and systems were going to be necessary if the business was to prosper – and there was some risk that, even with those investments, prosperity might not happen. The fight for capital was intense, and other, more successful business units got their share – and hers as well.

She gave it six more months. In that time, steady progress was made, customers were won back, and profitability continued to improve. At the same time, she sensed a growing impatience from her boss with the rate of progress – but no real help in the form of additional resources. At this point she was 18 months into her job, and while she had seen major progress, very little recognition of her accomplishments came her way. She gave it six more months.

At the end of two years in the assignment, when continued improvement went unrewarded, she resigned.

When asked about that experience five years later, she said it was by far the most valuable of her career. When pressed to identify what particularly valuable lessons she had taken from the experience that helped her be successful – and she had become very successful – she listed the following:

-You gotta pick your spots carefully. Every organization has top units and bad units. To decide to survive in a marginal unit with little upside is not very bright. Be sure the survival situation has an upside.

-The decision to fight through a tough situation, and take the risk of surviving, must be a conscious one. And once it’s made, all effort must be directed forward. It’s easy in these situations to adopt a “why me” or victim attitude – and that is fatal. Managing, defining and communicating expectations in a survival situation are absolutely critical skills – more than in a highly successful business. Pressure from above to see progress can lead to commitments being made that simply cannot be kept. And intentions sound good at the beginning of a reporting period – but only results matter. “Hockey stick” forecasts and plans – where all the good news is forecast to occur near the end of the measurement period – are always greeted with suspicion.

-Tolerance for mistakes is much lower in survival situations. And negative outcomes that would be ignored in a successful business are magnified and used as examples of just how bad things are – while good news is received with skepticism. Protecting and insulating the people committed to making it work from harsh criticism and judgment is a major task for the survival leader.

-A survival leader must have a core group of optimistic believers who are committed to making it work.

-Stay in close contact with the Boss – absolutely no surprises are allowed.

- Keep people focused on improvement through widely communicated goals they can share and buy into.

-Don’t let people see discouragement at bad news – and there is always bad news in survival situations. Negative emotions will be multiplied 100 times by those that observe them.

- Survival mode must be a temporary situation – it’s easy to slip into a survival mind set and make it a long term behavior.

- Survival – both personal and organizational – is often thankless. While in survival mode leaders have to see the value of their contribution themselves. Often, there is very little positive recognition given to survival.

- The worst thing a survival leader can do is to stay in place and let the situation grind them down. When the best shot has been given, and it remains apparent that that isn’t enough, move on – that’s always a choice – always. Know when to hold, and know when to fold.

- In the stress of survival situations, it’s easy to personalize all kinds of things. Don’t. The ability to see things for what they are – no more or no less – is a necessary ability. Trying to ascribe motive, or waste time on hidden meanings are great ways to lose control and perspective.

These Lessons In Survival were learned the hard way. That’s the only way to learn. If you see yourself or your organization in survival mode – use these Lessons to inventory what and how you can apply them to get through it better, quicker and more successfully.

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