Magazine

Resolutions for the Recession


For leaders, 2009 will pose a brutal challenge. Here are four strategems to steer by

Every year around this time people swear off donuts, take a vow of treadmill (or some other type of personal reform), and promise themselves that—this time—their New Year's resolutions are really, truly going to stick.

And every year, right around February or March, those same resolutions come a little unglued. That's O.K.; we're only human. But this year—since it promises to be unlike any other in memory—calls for another routine. As 2009 looms with steep challenges and deep uncertainty, we suggest that you add four work resolutions to your list, especially if you're leading a company, division, or even a team. They won't solve every problem, but ardently abiding by them might help you make the best of a (very) bad situation.

First and foremost, we suggest you resolve to make 2009 a year during which you stay outward-facing and on the offensive. Yes, defensive actions are necessary right now. Many companies have conducted a round of layoffs or reduced compensation, and more of the same may follow, along with cutbacks in other guises. But watch out. In such an environment people typically start obsessing on the internal, in particular on who and what will be next to go. Even more counterproductive, they start forgetting what keeps the whole enterprise alive in the first place—customers.

As a leader, your job over the daunting quarters ahead is to block that tendency. With your positive energy and example, keep your people riveted on delivering innovative products and services. And remember: Your customers are hurting, too. Offer them better-than-ever value, and you will sell more today and raise your chances of keeping their loyalty after these dark days pass.

Second, resolve to make 2009 the year you become excruciatingly clear with your people about the meaning of the term integrity. Of course you've been there, done that. You've told your team that integrity is a given; you've insisted you have zero tolerance for people who act unethically. But violations aren't always on a grand scale, à la Bernard Madoff. Far more often, they're committed by "regular" employees who have found a way to maneuver on the edges of your business.

So this year, pledge to take timeand lots of it—to explicitly spell out what's right and wrong. Make integrity black and white; try to eliminate the gray. And let your people know that when it comes to protecting customers and the company's reputation, ignoring an ethical violation is as bad as committing one.

Third, resolve to educate your whole team, wherever they sit in the hierarchy, about the dangerous consequences of the Employee Free Choice Act.

On this one, you'd better act fast. Most Democrats campaigned in support of this legislation, and many D.C.-watchers believe the new Congress will push it to a vote before summer. If it becomes law, Americans can say goodbye to the secret ballot in labor elections and expect a widespread increase in unionization efforts. No industry or company will be immune, from national banks to local machine shops.

Now, as the Big Three automakers struggle for survival, it's possible some of your employees are watching the president of the United Auto Workers on TV and thinking: "I wish I had someone like that to protect my job." But as you talk about this legislation with your people, you might point out that union work rules are a big reason Detroit is so close to bankruptcy. In 2009, Americans will not be in a secure enough position to withstand a resurgent unionization movement.

Finally, resist the impulse to make 2009 a year devoid of celebration. When times get tough, leaders often assume it's unseemly to stop now and again and, well, have some fun. But this year—because of its severe challenges—is sure to be filled with remarkable small victories and heroic efforts. What a lost opportunity to build morale it would be, then, not to recognize and reward the people who are overdelivering. More than ever, they need and deserve it.

Look, the forecast for 2009 is awful. You have your operating plan in place. But there's no time like New Year's to add an amplifying set of "rules" for getting through the year in decent shape. Four resolutions—and a heavy-duty dose of resolve—should help.

Jack and Suzy look forward to your questions. You can e-mail them and view their new Web site at welchway.com. For their PODCAST, go to businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm

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