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Creative Leadership: John R. Ryan

John Ryan: Creating a Sense of Urgency Among Employees

Like so many business sectors, the executive-education industry is challenged as the global economic crisis lingers. Many companies are scaling back their training budgets, resulting in slower business for my organization, the Center for Creative Leadership, and for many of our competitors. So we had real cause for excitement a few weeks ago when a major corporation chose our company for a large leadership development contract. As you might imagine, those deals aren't easy to land in this climate, and they don't happen without the hard work and collaboration of very talented men and women. This was a win worth celebrating, and we didn't waste much time spreading the word internally.

All the while, however, I kept remembering the lessons from a favorite book of mine, A Sense of Urgency, by Harvard Business School change expert John Kotter. In the more stable economy of recent decades, Kotter tell us, leaders could expect their organizations to face one big change a year, such as a merger or acquisition. Solving that challenge took considerable resources, to be sure. But leaders had the time to focus on it fully and ensure a successful outcome. Our world isn't the same anymore.

Now, challenges—really big challenges—come at us relentlessly. Severe recessions. New competitors. Natural disasters. New technology breakthroughs. Government legislation. We can never tell what will happen next. In this climate, establishing and sustaining a true sense of urgency in our organizations becomes vital.

Don't Take Your Foot off the Gas Throughout my 40 years of service in the military, higher education, and nonprofits, I've seen firsthand how elusive urgency can be. So it wasn't long before I started reminding my colleagues that our big new contract certainly is a great accomplishment. But it's still just one contract. We need many more like it to keep extending our reach and impact. We've all seen this dynamic: When things are going well, when we notch a big win, it's tempting to take the foot off the gas just a little bit. What we're doing, we tell ourselves, is obviously working. So what's the harm in relaxing for a moment?

We start to lose the discipline that made us effective all along. That's one way in which we can all benefit from a vicious downturn that has harmed a lot of people and companies around the world. If nothing else, we have the chance to re-establish discipline—discipline in how we select and develop talent and discipline in how we design our products and business processes.

While we're doing that, we must also remain alert to a big danger organizations face at times like these: a compulsion to panic. Panic is the dark side of urgency. It manifests itself in a tendency to focus more on short-term survival than long-term success. My twin brother and I played a lot of baseball and basketball growing up. Whenever we made a big jump, from youth leagues to high school to college squads, the competition got tougher. Having to prove ourselves at higher and higher levels was always a challenge; we faced the doubts most athletes have at one time or another about their abilities. We wanted and expected to perform well. But there was also that nagging little voice telling us it was good enough simply to make the team.

That's the kind of short-term outlook that ends in lower performance over the long run. It's an attitude leaders need to guard against especially well into a recession like this, when it can be hard to think about more than getting through the week. The challenge every leader has now is this: How do I keep my colleagues focused not just on staying in the game but on actually getting better?

Of course, there are no simple answers. But it all starts with urgency—and as leaders, we need to model it every day. Certainly, I don't claim to have perfected this particular art. But here are a few steps that can help spur a sense of urgency in our organizations:

• Don't hesitate to share bad news.

It's much more fun to announce client wins than budget cuts, but your women and men need to know the good and bad. And the sooner they know, the quicker they can adjust their work. Transparency builds trust.

• Convey optimism and passion.

Your colleagues are searching for clues in your every word and gesture. If you truly believe your organization has a bright future, you need to say it and give specific reasons why—and keep repeating yourself until others believe you and get engaged in making that bright future a reality.

• Publicly praise urgent actions.

When someone in your organization—regardless of their level—moves quickly to make something happen, thank them and make sure everyone knows about it. Small acts of urgency have the power to inspire larger ones.

• Partner with colleagues on strategy:

To move things along with urgency, it's tempting to grab your five closest advisers, lock yourselves in a room and hammer out your updated strategy for the next year. But the rest of your organization won't feel invested or engaged. This is the wrong way to demonstrate urgency! So solicit the thoughts and expertise of a wide swath of your colleagues and show them their input mattered. With so much uncertainty on the horizon, you need everyone to understand that your strategy will have to be revised as the global economy evolves. Maintain urgency, but stay flexible, too.

Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi said something every modern leader needs to remember: "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." When it comes to instilling urgency in our organizations, there's no better advice.
John R. Ryan is president of the Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of executive education. He was previously chancellor of the State University of New York and superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He was a pilot during a 35-year career in the Navy, retiring as a vice-admiral.

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