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Leading in Times of Chaos
By Dr. Karine Schomer, President, CMCT

Uncertain markets, shaky business performance, layoffs, bankruptcies and pervasive uneasiness are the new business realities - along with the disruptions of the new globalization, growing economic disparities, the U.S. economic downturn and the paradigm-jolting shock of September 11.

At the same time, new realities are emerging from these circumstances. Concepts such as remote services, information security, bio-informatics, Web services, network storage, Web-based distance learning and the expansion of wireless technology all pose the challenge of redirecting core competencies, remaking organizations and redesigning work. This, too, creates uncertainty, pressure and the need to lead and manage far-reaching change.

Most companies today face four major overlapping challenges: (1) How to survive the current slowdown while at the same time preparing for future recovery and growth? (2) How to focus on the essential products, services and markets that will take the company forward? (3) How to gain competitiveness through even more operational efficiencies? (4) How to lead and inspire employees who have good reason to be fearful about their job security?

In times such as these, business survival and success requires leaders who can see beyond the problems of today, articulate a credible vision of the future, and act on strategic challenges.

It takes managers who can mobilize the energies and commitment of their people to work effectively on changing priorities.

It takes resilient employees who are able to remain positive, focused and flexible in the face of uncertainty, who are trained for the new demands they need to meet, and who are rewarded for taking initiative and risks on behalf of the company's success.

It takes organizational cultures that are nimble, change-oriented and optimistic.

Case in point: the rapid transformation of Silicon Valley-based Novalux, a semiconductor company that promised to revolutionize long-haul optical networks for telecommunications. Heavily backed by venture capital and invested in fabrication facilities, Novalux found its whole target market drying up before production even began. Survival took a series of dramatic and nimble moves which changed everything: the company's product (change to lower-powered lasers for local networks), its business strategy (lower-cost technology rather than power), its operations (accountability, discipline, focus), its workforce size and work processes, its chief executive (change to someone with telecommunications experience and contacts) and its organizational culture (from a research organization into a commercial enterprise).

Faced with the need to initiate such changes or drive them through into an organization, leaders and managers (at all levels) can follow certain guiding principles that will help them succeed against the odds:

  • Start with the assumption that rapid change is a fact of business life, and focus on how you can continuously direct your resources and energies to meeting new adaptive challenges.

  • Cultivate your personal resilience. Use all the help you can get to make your own leadership and management as effective and possible. Seek expert advice. Cultivate confidants and allies.

  • Even in the thick of immediate pressures and crises, keep your focus on the future and the larger purposes and values you are serving.

  • Develop an effective leadership team to work with you. Don't try to be the solitary hero.

  • Push leadership and responsibility down into your organization. Give your people the training they need and help them develop their own leadership abilities.

  • Tell your people what is going on - the bad news as well as the good news. Seek their input and recommendations on significant matters. Create a motivating environment that invites them to share ownership of your organization's challenges and goals.

  • Be a rigorous diagnostician of the issues, processes and cultural habits of your organization that may bet in the way of your ability to change. Press courageously for addressing these, even at the cost of internal conflict.

  • Use strategies such as: an organizational change readiness assessment, a change management team facilitated by outside assistance, leadership coaching for your executive team, and a transparent two-way employee communications program.

Leading and managing in times of chaos is not for the faint-hearted leader, the casual "Brand X" manager, or the dysfunctional executive team. It requires a heightened ability to work with and through people to achieve results.

© 2002 Karine Schomer. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Siliconindia, March 2002.


For more information, contact CMCT, write to info@cmct.net, or call 510-525-9222.

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