Even in this recession, some businesses are performing well … even growing, as you’ll read elsewhere in this Digest. Here are some thoughts on how struggling companies might buck the trend.

Responses to the current business challenges cover a broad range. We read and hear most about a combination of panic and retrenchment, but at the other end of the spectrum, we see businesses finding some advantage to capitalise on.

I believe that many businesses and organisations are ignoring their ability to move along this range, towards joining those which are coping well. The key reason for this is that they are too focused on reducing costs and working capital requirements, generally by reducing staff and inventory levels.

While I applaud the proactive approach to reducing waste and inefficiency, I do wonder why it has taken a “recession” to have these issues addressed. Reducing staff numbers and inventory levels is not guaranteed to fix the business. In some circumstances, these moves can have the opposite impact.

Here are two suggestions for businesses that want to thrive in adversity … both relate to “unleashing” your employees.

Get everyone involved

It bothers me that managers and proprietors often believe that only they have the answers, and they must be seen to be decisive and proactive.

My view is that these leaders should make more use of that piece of universal office equipment – the whiteboard. A good proactive stance is one by a whiteboard  … as a facilitator for a group discussion on what options are available to the enterprise and the relevant merits of each. Not everyone will have a common perspective on this and it stimulates worthwhile discussion.

This process should not be limited to the senior management team or those with most responsibility. Mixing individuals from different areas in the business can add real value.

This requires good leadership. By this I don’t mean having a strong influence on the direction or outcome of the discussion. In fact, I prefer to see facilitators keep their own views to themselves.

The key is to get a wide range of views on to the board and then encourage a discussion by which these are prioritised. Some may be eliminated and others added. I always consider that a good meeting is one at which I change my mind about something, through becoming better informed. If this process is handled well, the group finishes up with a great understanding of the issues and a commitment to the process of moving forward.

The “whiteboard” exercise is never an end in itself. It is part of a process which must be followed through. The group who were involved need to be able to see the outcome of the discussions. They can become great advocates, and having them through the business can help drive the changes that were agreed upon.

Not everyone is at their best in a group situation. Some people will have their best ideas after the discussions have been completed and there has been time to reflect. For this reason, it is important for the manager to take the time to talk informally with each participant on a “one to one” basis. Great insight can be gained in a short time during these discussions.

This leads to my second recommendation on dealing with the recession.  

Reinvent roles

Managers need to look at the range of experience and skills in the business, and avoid the tendency to see people only in relation to their current roles.

I have always preferred to see people in terms of their potential. Real value can come from talking with individuals about the future of the business or organisation and particularly their place in that. Restructuring to better utilise the skills and potential of existing staff is worth pursuing and can have a really positive impact on both individual job satisfaction and internal morale. The importance of strong morale at all times cannot be overrated, but it is even more so when facing challenges.

As I write this, I recall my own efforts when I was in the brewing industry many years ago. Although employed as an accountant, I focused on convincing management to give me a chance at working as a sales representative. One colleague suggested at the time that my motivation was to secure a company car! I will not comment on that.

But I can confirm that my move from behind a desk on to the road, interfacing directly with the market, was one of the best I ever made to develop my understanding and skill set. Since then, I have always been keen to see personnel with potential, given the opportunity to achieve it. In the end the employer is a beneficiary of this.

As Jack Nicklaus, the American golfing legend, put it: “Achievement is largely the product of steadily raising one’s level of aspiration and expectation.”

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