May 27, 2020
The Leader Must Be The Flagbearer Of Hope
Daily reports of doom and gloom descend on all of us through the media. Unemployment, enterprise obliteration, crashing growth rates, plague and pestilence run rampant. The short term looks bad, but the long term looks worse. Unlock in haste and repent at leisure or stay locked in and gamble with elimination. I was participating in a German Chamber webinar where the speaker flagged his company’s current research which said 39% of Japanese worried they would lose their job and the same number feared their firm would collapse. Every continent has trouble and every continent is enmeshed in global supply chain configurations, that line up the national economic dominos for big scale, long lasting recessions. Optimists like me are running on fumes right now.
As a leader, I have to be a fully paid up, active member of Optimists International. I have to give my team hope of a way through and a future – together. US firms are fast to furlough and fire, compared to Japanese organisations. The American Dream of shareholder value says cut costs, cut people and keep the profitability up. In America, loyalty seems transactional. Japan reveres longevity. Television news programmes showing long established small restaurant owners bidding their loyal customers a final farewell, before they disappear for good, are scenes which tug on Japanese heartstrings.
Ninety-nine percent of firms in Japan are Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Some of these medium companies are quite big by western standards, but the vast majority do not employ legions of workers and up until February, they had trouble hiring staff. The social contract between boss and worker in Japan’s SMEs is “I will do everything possible to protect your employ”. Japan in my experience expects that people will be placed before profits. In SMEs there is a paternalistic assumption, that the boss thinks of the workers as family.
Big companies often flourish flowery rhetoric such as “our assets go down the elevator every night”, except of course, when they are firing them, to retain shareholder value. For SMEs, their people are the key assets in the business and they are hard to replace. As the boss, I have to keep my team employed, no matter what, and I have to keep them after the virus war is over or a coexistence armistice has been arrived at. This retain aspect is not a given. In the current situation, people are obviously clinging to their jobs, because their choices are few and ugly.
After the devastation has been halted, what then? Will the staff decide to stay with the firm and together rebuild out of the bad times? Or will they conclude that, with their skills, they should move to a bigger firm which is better resourced and more stable and reliable in tough times? Bosses being transparent has risks. Telling the team the real situation builds a strong sense of teamwork and commitment to survival. It might also be secretly building exit strategies by the best and most talented people, who conclude they prefer predictability over flexibility.
This is where the boss has to become a fluent communicator of hope for the future. We tend to get focused on the day to day, “we have to keep going”, aspects of the leader’s role and we take our eye off the future. We are stressed. We are working harder than before, under considerably more pressure and with a lot less control. Even before it looks like there is a future, we need to be talking about it. That doesn’t mean Pollyannaish piffle based on a wish and a prayer. There has to be objective truth in there somewhere or we just stoke the fires of scepticism and doubt.
Yes, we have to watch the day to day reality of getting money in the door, but at the first glimpse of tunnel light, we need to ramp up the “hope for the future” anthem. We need to marshal everyone’s thinking to getting on the front foot. We need to talk about we the survivors, will survey a reduced competitive plain in front of us. We have to focus our attention on capturing our clients at that critical moment, when they mentally switch from the “do nothing” ideology to “it is time to take some action”.
We have to expound on how we have become stronger, better positioned for this coming year. Mention must be made of the growth in the team’s capabilities, the new skills which have been added since February. Our every opportunity must be given over to presenting a future together, where we will not only get back to where we were, but we will now go even further, because of this experience. Focus on the here and now, has to become focus on hopes for the future.