Management: Change for the better

“Hard Times Come Again No More.” That is the title of a beautiful, mournful, old spiritual. If you know this old tune, you are very likely humming it as you move through these still rather shaky times.

What I’ve been thinking about, along with that sentiment, is what lessons have we learned during the recent hard times? What accommodations did we all make in the name of survival? And which of those changes do we want to keep as some measures of economic stability return?

It is my privilege to coach a few business leaders who kept their organizations growing and profitable during the past months. In addition to sticking with solid business practices, during the recession these leaders increased focus on several key areas. They are now looking at maintaining that focus as we move into a different – and hopefully less turbulent – economic environment.

Of course, as always, these executive officers kept as a top priority, meeting payroll and covering overhead. They were especially aware of any opportunities for making their organizations more efficient. They made some adjustments in payroll, short of layoffs or terminations directly reactive to the economy. Some clients did this by temporarily shortening the work week, or by changing vacation practices. Everyone was affected similarly, across the board in these organizations.

That is not to say no employees were terminated. In many companies, inferior performance is tolerated way too long. Then, when money is tight, the economy is used as an excuse to clean house, so to speak, resulting in high anxiety throughout the organization.

The better practice followed by the business owners who kept growing during the past months, is to attend to poor performance quickly. If a B- or C employee can be inspired to make a turnaround, to engage fully in professional development measures and bring performance in line with expectations, then everyone wins. If it becomes evident that you don’t have a good match between employee and job, and your best efforts at finding a remedy fail, don’t wait for an economic downturn to sweep the poor employee out the door. 

Another adjustment that successful business owners make is to heighten attention to morale. This is one adaptation to the recession that makes sense to keep in play always. The focus on morale begins with listening, deep listening to the prevailing mood in your business. If employees feel safe they will talk about their feelings about the organization, the leadership, the products or services. They will only speak their truth if they feel someone at the top gives a rip about what they think. It will always take time for people to trust that they can have an impact on policy. If the leadership is trustworthy, eventually it will be known and will be part of the culture. If suggestions are welcome and valued, it will eventually be known and part of the culture. Morale can be healthy in the worst or the best of times—and it is always directly related to performance.

We all know it has been harder to attract and keep customers during the past tough months. Smart business leaders did not slash marketing budgets as they cut costs. They did, however, use more creativity and less money in spreading the word about their products or services. The free internet-based social networking services reach millions and are used more and more to connect with customers. Blogging, when done well and regularly, will provide valuable information and encourage deeper relationships with customers. We’ll continue to see these social networks evolve, but they are here to stay. It makes sense to continue using them to market your organization during any economic weather. If you feel at sea in the face of Facebook, Twittering and the like, there are plenty of resources to help you. Your kids may be the best advisers.

Special offers, coupons, contests, member discounts – all of these became more common in the past months. I imagine we’ll soon have some useful studies providing guidance in which of them to keep as part of a marketing program as we move forward. You might begin an analysis yourself. 

The lesson, I think, is to keep creativity alive even when the pressure to attract customers may be somewhat less intense. Many companies have begun offering a gift of some sort if a customer has been inconvenienced or dissatisfied with a product or service. It may be a $ or the like. And it may be smart to keep that going in the future as well. It clearly leaves a better impression than a bad taste in the mouth.

Whether within a family or a business organization, there are ways we adjust to hard times. It would be foolish to abandon all of those adjustments when we feel more flush. I encourage you to take a close look at the steps you’ve been taking, and to select from them the ones that you want to incorporate into your “all-time” company policy.


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