It seems as if we've been preparing for this recession for two or three years, constantly predicting it and staving it off as long as we could, all the while listening to the media tell us that it was just around the corner. And now that it is here—and it is here—we're witnessing a new media-inspired cottage industry building up around the "down economy" and the bad times that are upon us and that lie ahead.
Every news story seems to have the addendum "in a bad economy" attached to it. I suspect that soon there will be a new "Recession Barbie" on toy store shelves, complete with a BlackBerry, a frown on her face, and a copy of her résumé in her hands.
Well, so far I've resisted jumping onto the down-economy bandwagon, not wanting to contribute to any self-fulfilling prophecy or culture of victimization that can make a bad situation worse. But after numerous requests, I've agreed to share my own perspectives about how leaders can survive and even thrive during difficult times.
The first thing we have to do is ask ourselves a fundamental question: Do we believe things will get better? If we don't, if we believe this is the definitive end to any upside in the economy and that it's all downhill from here, then I'm afraid I have no good advice— aside from moving somewhere that does have an economic upside.
Invest in the Future
But most of us would admit that the economy will rebound, though maybe not the same way it has in the past given the fundamental problems related to real estate and debt. But even in the face of those challenges, there is a good chance that we will experience an economic upturn sometime in the foreseeable future. And if that is the case, our call to action is clear: Use this time to invest in your organization's future. In fact, the best investment you can make right now is in the general health of your organization. I'm talking mostly about improving the functioning of the executive team, and their clarification of and recommitment to the organization's values and purpose. Doing this will require a little time and energy, but very little money. And it will yield substantial returns now, and even more when the economy rebounds.
A wise executive team will view the slow times as an opportunity to build greater trust and behavioral cohesiveness. This will benefit the organization by minimizing politics and infighting, which are especially common during difficult times, and it will allow the team to make better decisions about which programs and employees need to be retained and which shouldn't. And the only way to do this is by getting off-site and having practical but often difficult conversations about team members' strengths and weaknesses, and how to improve the dynamics of the group.
All of this will allow the organization to emerge stronger than ever when the economy turns around, and with a real advantage over competitors. That's because most of those competitors will probably flail during down times, frantically searching for a tactical way to swim upstream and defy the current, leading to even more frustration and angst than is necessary. In the end they'll simply be more weary, scarred, and unprepared.
Of course, like so much of the advice that people are repositioning these days for a down economy, none of this is really new. Even during good times, leaders should be investing in the health of their teams. But with so many shining opportunities in front of them, they often fail to slow down and do what it is best for the long term. Now that there are fewer and fewer of those shiny opportunities, there is no good excuse. And that may turn out to be a good thing.