Staying Focused When Tough Times Are Ahead

Harvard Business Review

October 22, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

I have had the privilege of working with many great leaders — as well as watching a few disasters. While it is easy to inspire people when the business is going well, the best leaders inspire people when times are tough. Following are three suggestions, based upon what I have learned from my coaching clients:

– The first person that you need to keep focused is YOU. It is very easy to get down when hard times lay ahead. When you assume a leadership role, you take on an important responsibility — being a role model for your team. When the future is very uncertain, your team members are going to be looking at your face and listening to your tone of voice, as much as they are hearing the words that you say. You need to communicate the same level of personal motivation for work when the future is challenging that you do when the future is rosy. Before going home from work, rate yourself on the following question, “How effectively did I model the enthusiasm and focus that I need from my team members?”

– Don’t sugar-coat the truth. Don’t lie to your team members and don’t lie to yourself. You, your team, and your organization need to make realistic projections for the future. The need for “stretch goals” must be balanced with reality. I recently observed an otherwise successful executive lead his organization into disaster. He became so focused on achieving his publicly stated goal that he didn’t want to face the reality of the negative projections that were coming from his people. He kept saying, “That’s not good enough!” when he got troubling forecasts. To make things even worse, he swore to his boss that his unrealistic, positive target would be met. The result was predictable. The forecast was not met, the organization’s analysts were incensed, and the company’s market value plummeted. This leader not only damaged his reputation as a trusted executive, he damaged the reputation of the boss who believed in him.

– In team meetings keep the focus on what can be changed and what can’t. There are always going to be uncontrollable environmental factors that influence the success of an organization. Your staff members can waste countless hours talking about how tough times are and bemoaning what they cannot change. This provides an unneeded distraction at a time when focus is more important than ever. Even worse than wasting time on “what we can’t do” is wasting time on “why we can’t do what we can’t do.” In teams meetings, keep asking, “Given the business reality that exists, how can we make the most positive, possible difference in our future?”