With this economy, it’s time to get REAL
By Dick Olenych, Inside Business - Hampton Roads - 11/23/2009
Things are looking pretty good.
Housing seems to be getting its foundation back. Homes are being sold and for higher prices. Sales aren’t going through the roof yet, but they are increasing.
Profits at some financial institutions are soaring compared to last year. A few companies are even making enough money to throw the TARPs back and pay outrageous bonuses again. That’s a good thing, I think.
Manufacturing is producing more than a year ago. Look what some automakers have achieved in the last six months – profits. It ain’t the Autobahn, but we’re no longer losing traction either.
And the market is doing great compared to where it was. What was the Dow earlier this year, 6,500? It’s incredible, but forecasters in March were predicting the end.
Boy, am I glad to be through this mess. We can all breathe a big sigh of relief. We’re on the upswing, nothing but smooth sailing from here on out. Let’s get our game face on and get back to making things happen. With all of the good news we should be able to start celebrating. Where’s that champagne?
Some of us are now seeing year-over-year growth. We’re managing our receivables. And the cost czars are doing a great job at squeezing profits from a turnip.
Things are better, yes. But before we pop that cork, let’s look behind the curtain.
We cannot forget how this downturn has affected us.
How it has destroyed the morale of our companies because it has had devastating consequences for virtually every person in the marketplace.
We must understand as leaders our people are shell-shocked. They are still reeling from two years of relentless turmoil in the workplace and in their personal lives.
Our economy has not faced such challenges for close to 75 years. That’s two generations. We are experiencing some of the same trials and tribulations that our grandparents and great grandparents suffered through during the Great Depression.
Conservative estimates are that Americans have lost close to $17 trillion of wealth during this Great Recession. That’s a staggering amount by anyone’s calculations.
People’s cars are being repossessed. They are being shuttered from their homes. And they are losing their life savings. But it’s not just the monetary losses. These are very terrifying experiences.
When our service members come back from war, some of them have post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a very real emotional illness that can manifest into unhealthy behaviors.
I contend that our employees are going through this same scenario today.
They’ve developed a form of PTSD. Some people are humiliated by their circumstances and are developing defeatist attitudes. In some organizations the stench of despair is very real. Conversations that were positive before the recession have taken on a paranoia persona. Even good news brings negative snipes.
If by chance your employees don’t perk up because the economy is better, it’s no wonder.
Employees have been brutalized; make that, all of us have been traumatized to some degree. Even if we have not lost our job or business, we have felt the pain. We have seen our friends and loved ones lose their jobs and their homes.
We have had to make some very difficult decisions to survive. And in a lot of cases it meant that we had to cut benefits and reduce staff. We have had too many exit interviews with good employees.
After the 2001 recession, unemployment kept rising until its peak in June 2003. That was an incredible 19 months lag into that economic recovery. That means unemployment may continue to rise until well into 2010 and beyond.
So we have a mixed bag of goods. The recovery is starting, but our people are still hurting. Now what do we do?
Do we keep managing like we did before and hope that the synergy and morale come back? Maybe we can hang motivational pictures that say, “Teamwork works,” or tack a poster up in our break rooms – “Our employees are our #1.”
Do you really believe that people are that forgetful? That they have forgotten that their benefits have been cut or that all of the frills in their workplace have been stripped clean? Or maybe they’ll not remember that they are now doing the work of three people? Those darn empty cubicles are a dead give-away, though.
Remember, these are the same employees that couldn’t appreciate the fact that they weren’t fired just a few short months ago. Why can’t they be thankful for anything management does?
Every time something is cut it leaves a scar. We have had to do a lot of triage. Does anyone truly believe that it will be the same with our employees as it was?
People judge others by their actions, but judge themselves by their intent. And here lies the ultimate problem or dichotomy of sorts. We have taken actions to save our companies. We did what we believed were the right measures to survive, although they were very difficult ones.
Most employees will view these actions as necessary. They see and know what’s going on. They understand the logic behind the actions. However, there are still elements of hostility. It’s natural. Each action has pushed a wedge deeper and deeper between us.
For the last seven years my inscriptions have said, “Enthusiasm doesn’t happen by chance.” And I truly believe that.
As leaders, we are the ones who need to shoulder the responsibility for the emotional state of our companies. We must get REAL if we expect our organizations to move forward and win.
We must get REAL if we expect our organizations to be quickly transformed into synergist units with the focus on the business, and not downtrodden by their recent experiences.
What is REAL? It is the ability to reconnect with those around us – to pull them forward. To generate perpetual energy that isn’t locked in a vacuum. To instill in others the belief that we can and we will overcome all obstacles.
It is never too early to start. And once committed to, it should never stop. It is the essence of true leadership.
You see, I’m passionate about customer service. I believe it is the trump card that differentiates a company and sets it apart from the competition.
An organization cannot have great customer service unless its employees are empathetic, synergistic and customer-centric. We need to work on elevating our employees’ core competencies so that our customer service is second to none.
But to be fair there is more to it.
“Improving corporate performance by just 20 percent improves the bottom line by 42 percent,” estimates Tom FitzGerald, author of the book “Fire in the Corporate Belly.” Synergy adds to the bottom line.
So we must work on re-establishing normal working relationships with those around us. REAL stands for: Realize what’s going on. Earn their trust. Accept the issues. Laughter. Explained in more detail:
• Realizing that those around you have more to their lives than the work they do is the first and most critical step. We must understand that people have issues and concerns that are not work-related, but affect how work gets down. So as a strong leader you must listen. We must realize that the right course of action could be a sympathetic ear.
• Earn their trust. After all that has happened, please do not think for a second that employees will gladly accept management’s philosophies. Or better yet, that they will cheer good economic news. That’s just not going to happen.
After the cuts, after the slash and burns, management must make a stand. We must make bold statements and follow those words with decisive actions. We must think of our employees. We must have a rallying point. And we must give them hope.
• Accepting their issues is the next crucial step. It’s not a “me” game. It is all about them. If they have struggled, be empathetic. If their issues persist, be concerned not condescending. Do you really believe that the market’s rally will help an associate make his rent? Does it help with her kid’s braces?
Remember these are people who did their jobs well before all of the distractions. We have to try to understand what those around us are going through.
• Finally, laugh. I have always used humor and laughter. I believe it is a great median to connect with people. Self-deprecating humor can set the right tone and build bridges faster than any formal program. Moderation and appropriateness is of course a must, though.
Recently, I have found myself talking about the S&L crises of the ’80s.
I was a smart boy back then. I bought three pieces of property at the apex. The interest rates were only 18 percent. But that’s OK because houses were appreciating at 30 percent.
Even though I had a tremendous negative cash flow it looked great on paper because I needed the tax deductions. A fool and his money are soon parted.
The rules changed and I lost. I lost my shirt, my shorts and a bunch of money.
Boy, I wish I could get a mulligan for that one. It is as REAL as it is.
Dick Olenych is the president of Spectrum Printing in Virginia Beach and the author of the business novel, “Joe Sails.” He is a member of the Virginia Chapter of the National Speakers Association and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.