Leadership Lessons for Today’s Turbulent Times May Be Up in the Air

We have entered an era of convulsive change, unprecedented in its scope, breadth and pace. Whether we’re talking about our business, social, political or economic environment, all the navigational landmarks that used to guide our path have been obliterated. Expenses are up. Margins are down. Competition is up. Customer service? When was the last time any of us had time to sit with a customer? Labor costs are rising sharply and so are the demands to reduce headcount. Loyalty. forgettaboutit.

Then there are the ever-pressing demands coming out of the corner office: value added, customer intimacy, competition, integration. Do more with less. And do it faster. Sadly, what worked in the past is no guarantee of success today. In fact, it may be a prescription for failure. Those who manage change adroitly will not only survive, but thrive, during these turbulent times. You can either fasten your seat belt, return your tray tables to their upright and locked position and hang on for the ride of your life, or you can climb into the cockpit and use the following navigational tools to steer through the choppy air.

  • Chart your course. The groundwork for a successful flight occurs before take-off. Successful pilots carefully study weather patterns and traffic conditions, and chart a course that will help them reach their destination all before leaving the ground. They don’t depend upon what worked last year, last month or last week. Without the proper preparations, they are literally flying by the seat of their pants. And that’s not good news if you are along for the ride.
  • Taking a page from their flight plan, you need to take stock of current conditions. Listen closely to what your customers are saying, what they want, not what you want to hear (which generally coincides with what you historically have delivered). Your customers are the reason you’re in business in the first place and they will help you chart a course to help you reach your destination.
  • Share your vision. This “flight plan” becomes your guiding vision; a vision to be communicated easily and frequently to others on the team. This vision becomes the yardstick by which all actions are measured and judged. Don’t try to go it alone. Like a pilot, share where you are going, when you will get there and any turbulence you are likely to encounter. Be honest and open. As goals are shared and tested, they become stronger and more effective.
  • It’s the team. The pilot cannot fly the plane without a good support crew — the mechanics who maintain the engines, the people who design the plane, the workers who had riveted the fuselage, ground control, the navigator. These are the people the pilot depends on, people whose skills are critical to making the most of his or her individual skills. They’re not support people who are subservient, but rather a part of a team whose contribution and importance are equal. You need to attract people with the skills you lack and the energies, passion and attitude you can harness to achieve your objectives.
  • Reinvent yourself. Once you’ve built a flight plan grounded on your customers’ expectations, you must take a realistic look at your ability to meet and exceed those needs. Nothing is sacred. Look critically at everything you do and make sure it is properly aligned with what the customer wants – not what makes your job easier or what you’ve historically done.

    Are your products and services designed and developed with your customer in mind? Do you have the right tools and the right people in place to deliver your strategy? An airline would never fly a single engine plane into the eye of a hurricane. You shouldn’t either.

  • Paddle fast. Armed with the right strategy, the right tools, and the right people, take action and take it quickly. Be nimble and quick in adapting to the changing business currents. Remember the boater’s adage: when you’re running the river, you must paddle hard so you’re moving faster than the rapids. That way you, not the current, determine the course. If left at the mercy of the river you likely will receive a wake-up call on the rocks. Not what you, or your company, wants.
  • Fight complacency. Too often, people get comfortable with their routines. The problem is that once complacency sets in, mistakes are made, or inertia sets in to stifle new opportunities. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got. By creating a sense of purpose and communicating that regularly, you can set the tone and direction of your business, align your people to the new reality and inspire them to reach new heights. Look to constantly challenge and excite them.
  • Be flexible. Things don’t always work out as planned. If rough air enters the route of travel a pilot will alter the flight plan adjusting altitude or the path of travel in pursuit of quieter air. But without losing sight of the ultimate destination. Adjust and recalibrate constantly to ensure you and your team reach your destination in the best way possible.
  • Be positive. Do your part to help create an upbeat environment at work. A positive and cheerful workplace is important to productivity. You must convey a compelling – and positive – view of the future. How likely are you to fly with a pilot that is unsure of his or her abilities to get you where you want to go safely and quickly?
  • Create short-term wins. Too many leaders take an “all-or-nothing” approach, instead of breaking goals down into bite size nuggets. If you don’t give yourself the ability to score some small victories, the bigger ones become more elusive. Remember, winning is habit-forming. Plus, you can build on these small victories to help recalibrate your vision and accomplish even greater levels of change. But for this breakthrough to occur, ensure that all the people on your team participate in the solution so they take ownership.
  • Declaring victory when appropriate. In a related vein, too many people score a couple of early wins and rest on their laurels. That’s a prescription for disaster.
  • Anchor the change. Your approach must be solidly based in the principled and ethical treatment of yourself and others. Treat others as you would want to be treated.

These simple rules provide a chart that will keep you in the cockpit as you navigate our changing world. Remember the words of Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

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