Crisis Is An Opportunity For Every Leader. No Exceptions.

Fallen Tree still growing

Pandemic fallout, mild or severe, has been a setback for many.  There is pain.  There is fear.  There is surely disappointment.  

As the owner of a small business, I know each of those feelings well, as do many of you.

Deep inside, you also know that eventually this will be but a memory.  Will it be a memory you dread?  Or one that you cherish?

It is up to you to shape what comes next.  Starting now.  You can make a memory that inspires you, and maybe others, whether you are running a business, a department, or heading a team.

That is the opportunity (and the challenge) every leader must embrace, wholeheartedly.  No exceptions.  

These seven steps have helped my clients and I give shape to our future memories of the current crisis.  

Step 1: Establish Big-Picture Breaks

Set aside time for recurring half to one-hour chunks of time when you step away from urgent matters, including crisis management, immediate issues, and whatever else qualifies as “business as usual” for your business and for you.  Put them in your calendar like any other important appointment. Just you, a legal pad and pen, and your undivided attention.

Step#2: Rediscover Your 3Ps

Use the Big-Picture Breaks you scheduled in Step 1 to rediscover and establish a strong connection with your Passion, Purpose and Peak.  

Your passion is what you care about most deeply as a leader. Your purpose is an expression of your ultimate business goal that is sparked by your passion.  Your peak is the metric that will show you when you have achieved your purpose.  It’s the measurable accomplishment that will signal to you that you have reached the pinnacle of your passion and purpose.

Write down everything that comes to mind.  Now, or during a later break, work to distill each of the 3Ps into one sentence.  

Step 3: Identify The 3Ms

Armed with the 3Ps from Step 2, you can now turn your focus to the Meaning, Morale and Motivation for your teams.  

Meaning is a brief and simple description that captures the essence of your 3Ps in a way that others can understand.  Morale is your blueprint for instilling and maintaining a feeling of enthusiasm and encouragement across your team. Motivation is your game plan for cultivating and nurturing your team’s drive to always do the right things for the business and do them well.

The 3Ms will make your passion, purpose and peak a living thing for your teams. They can bring everyone to the table with the same vision for how to make your peak an attainable metric.

Start with what comes into your mind and write it all down.  During a later break, distill your thoughts on each of the 3Ms into no more than a couple of sentences each.

Step 4: Create Scenarios to Take Uncertainty into Account

You are now ready to visualize the uncertainties ahead.  The objective here is to see clearly through the fog of constant change.  Ideally, get your key people involved through the remaining steps.

With your 3Ps and 3Ms clear and top of mind, it’s time to bring out your crystal ball and look into the future. You want to organize the most meaningful uncertainties that you identify for your business into 3 to 5 future scenarios.  These scenarios will serve as static snapshots to inform and guide your strategies and actions over the next 12 to 18 months.  

You can follow these guidelines to create your scenarios:

  1. List 5 to 7 sources of uncertainty that are likely to have the greatest impact on your business. These will consist of some combination of major events and business drivers. Events could include the November election, a resurgence of the pandemic, a deep recession, among other things.

    Important business drivers that are not under your control can include supply chain disruptions, changes in consumer demand, or your access to capital or to top talent.

    Write these all down, taking into account your ideas and the thoughts of your key people, and then identify the 5 to 7 most important ones.

  2. Address each of the areas of uncertainly that you have identified, and use your crystal ball to look 12 to 18 months into the future.

    For each area of uncertainty, outline a case that you consider to be the most likely occurrence for your business. This is your base case. Then, create two occurrences that represent more challenging outcomes. Make them significantly different from your base case.  

    You will now have 15 to 21 building blocks to use for building scenarios for the various uncertainties you are anticipating.

  3. You and your team can now formulate your 3 to 5 scenarios from the base case and the more challenging outcomes you have identified in the above exercise. 

    First, aggregate the most likely cases for each of the areas of uncertainty into your primary scenario.

    Next, mix and match the remaining building blocks you created into additional scenarios of the future. Each of these should be distinctly different from the primary scenario, and from one another.

    You have successfully created 3 to 5 possible scenarios for the future of your business.

Step 5: Envision Important Future Outcomes 

Imagine your business a year from now.  For each of the 3 to 5 scenarios you have developed in the previous step, visualize reasonable yet aspirational outcomes for your business.

Start by considering your business objectives.  Each scenario you have developed should suggest business objectives that are optimal for that scenario. With your team still engaged in the process, create a short list of these objectives for each scenario.

From those short lists, envision and write down business outcomes in as much detail as possible. These should be measurable and specific. For example, an objective to retain most of your existing customers might translate into the following outcomes. 

  • Customer satisfaction has increased from current levels to 95%+
  • A plan that has been developed from customer input is working to provide customers options to stay on
  • 2 new offerings launched by late this year are gaining traction among existing customers
  • Purchase levels for 60%+ customers are at or above pre-pandemic levels

Each outcome can be further detailed to paint a clearer picture of where the business needs to be.

Step 6: Distill 3 to 5 Core 12-Month Goals

Focus on your list of business outcomes that correspond to the primary scenario you developed in Step 5 and draw up the 3 to 5 most important 12-month goals for your business.  

Goals may or may not directly correspond with the business outcomes you have identified. A single goal may contribute to the pursuit of two or more outcomes.

Consider and document how your goals would change if one of your other scenarios were to become more likely based on actual future events.

For each 12 month goal, develop a paragraph to describe it in clear and specific language. An effective description will make sense to someone who isn’t familiar with your business.

Step 7: Draw Up Your Execution Road Map

Now that you have some ideas about where your business could be headed, it’s time to draw up a rough-cut road map of how you will get from here to there. 

First, assign one owner for each goal. Ask each owner to identify and document three key milestones towards their goal, each roughly 90 days apart from each other.  That will frame progress for the 90-, 180- and 270-day marks, on your way to successful completion.

Next they should prepare a clear and complete 1-paragraph description for the first 90-day milestone.

You and your team can now plan brief, weekly meetings to check in on everyone’s progress towards their goal, and identify, discuss and resolve any issues that have cropped up, or any changes to the assumptions behind the current scenario.

Conclusion

At this point you are unlikely to be thinking about a crisis.  Instead, you are thinking about the opportunities that you have crafted from your less-than-ideal circumstances.  

Your team and you now have a purpose and a passion to make good on the opportunity.  You have the wind in your back instead of in your face.

Let me know your thoughts and, if you choose to try out these seven steps, how it goes or if you run into any issues. 

 

Score A Meeting With The Most Important Person In The World

A friend of mine is the quintessential traveling minstrel of the business world. She’s a highly paid consultant, always on the road.
 
Every Monday morning, she grabs her tall cup of coffee and travels to another distant client location. From coast to shining coast.
 
During the work week, she rises every morning in her hotel room. She dances all day to her client’s tune. And tucks herself into a different bed every week.
 
She returns to her life and her family Thursday nights. Exhausted. Physically, intellectually, emotionally. 
 
Spiritually, she says she is frayed. And fraying a wee bit faster every week. She knows this is not what she wants out of life.
 
The money is good. She’s respected in her field. Her clients appreciate her work. Her colleagues value her knowledge and skills. 
 
She recently said to me, “I would love to figure out what I really want to do with the rest of my life. And then do it. But I simply don’t have the time.” 
 
She continued, “When I am not on the road, I am either busy catching up on life’s other backlogs, or too tired to think. The days and weeks just buzz by. Sometimes I feel guilty. Sometimes sad.”
 
I listened. I understood. Many of us have been in my friend’s shoes. At several pivotal points during the course of an eclectic career, my work life too has pulled away in directions that just didn’t feel right.
 
Like the time I was Chief Of Staff for a senior R&D executive at a top-10 life sciences company. My boss was running a 3,000 person organization with a budget of over a billion.
 
I enjoyed great pay, prestige, influence  and respect. But no real juice. Just like my consultant friend.
 
My brain was racing. How can I help her? I’ve been in her situation before. What worked for me? Then it came to me in a flash.
 
“You need to schedule an appointment” I found myself saying.
 
“With who?” she asked. 
 
“With the most important person in the world.”
 
Silence.
 
“Hmmm. Who might that be?” she asked weakly, likely wondering if it had been a wise idea to share her dilemma with me. 
 
“YOU” I replied. “In this situation, is there any other person more important?” 
 
That question, luckily for me, brought it home. Suddenly, all at once, she grasped the point. It all fell into place. I didn’t have to say more. 
 
Now that she understood, we brainstormed the next 10 minutes and came up with a few ways to do it right. And make it stick. 
 

Important vs Urgent

The flood in the basement is urgent and important. Scrolling down your Twitter feed is neither urgent nor important. Answering the door bell is urgent, but generally not important. Working out regularly is important but not urgent. 
 
That last one – important but not urgent – often gets neglected. 
 
But what is “important”?  Important things, in this context, are those that matter to you primarily over the long-term. They yield little to no tangible benefits over the short-term.
 
If you want to learn more about this notion of important vs urgent, read Chapter 3 of author Stephen Covey book, The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People.
 
That chapter is titled Put First Things First. It presents a nifty two-by-two matrix, where “important but not urgent” sits in Quadrant 2. My colleagues and I at work use “Quadrant 2” as a shorthand to refocus, if we are veering off too much into the other quadrants.
 
Professionally, my consultant friend was spending 100% of her time in those other three quadrants. Neglecting Quadrant 2. I pointed this out to her. And asked if she felt her need deeply enough to elevate it to Quadrant 2. She said she did. 
 

Zero In on the Best Times

Finding optimal times to do something makes it a lot easier to get done. Like driving to work before or after rush hour. Or taking advantage of your body’s natural rhythms to do creative work early in the morning. Or late at night.
 
I asked my friend, “What’s best for you? How about on the flight out to your client location at the top of the week? Fresh after the weekend, with none of the office interruptions.”
 
She mumbled something that sounded like encouragement for me to go on.  
 
So I did, “Could you maybe fit this thinking time into the quiet moments of a weekend morning?  Maybe even during a head clearing walk in the middle of a not-so-crazy consulting day?” 
 
My friend’s enthusiasm on the rise, she said, “For the first time I feel I might be able to actually do it.” 
 
Just for good measure, I forwarded her a little video I had come across of simple time hacks.  “7 Time-saving Hacks That Will Free Up Hours In Your Schedule” by Rob Ludacer and Chris Weller. 
 

Start in Small Increments

Will power is like a muscle. It is folly to pick up the 20lb weight in the gym before first gaining some traction with the 5lb weight. And so on…
 
When we start small, we make it easier to fight off resistance. And excuses. And fatigue. It get us to the small wins. Those that build the will power muscle. Gives us that little dopamine hit. Bolsters or confidence to do a wee bit more. 
 
Make it so small at first, I told my friend, that you simply can’t say no to yourself. In the beginning, treat it like a meeting with your boss. Or your chief client.
 
“How about 15 minutes of “me time”? Too much? 10? You can surely do 5. Just a little nudge-to-self note marked on your calendar.” 
 
“Later on, after you’ve done a few, they can be planned, spontaneous, or a combination of both,” I continued.
 
“I never looked at it that way,” she replied. “Makes it sound a lot less daunting. Quite the opposite of how I’ve always thought about it.”
 
I suggested my friend take a peek at Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. Their research at Harvard illustrating the power of small, incremental progress.
 

Build over Time

You may have heard the old English saying, “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow”.  Likewise, small wins often generate the fuel needed for bigger successes: Confidence and learning. 
 
A key ingredient is the elusive “can do” mindset, which is often quick to flee if you try to “go big” too quickly. And run into walls. Especially when you set your sights on something that lives in Covey’s Quadrant 2.  In other words, something important that’s not urgent.
 
To my friend, I said, channeling Schumacher, “Small is beautiful. Eventually big may be better. But build only when you’ve laid a solid foundation.” 
 
“I am not sure I understand”, she said hesitantly. 
 
“Stick with the smallest increment of time you’re comfortable starting with,” I said, “until you feel confident you can easily schedule longer meetings with yourself.” 
 
After doing it a few times, it will be quite easy to ratchet up from 5 minutes to 10. Or from 10 to 15.
 
To carve out a big chunk of time with yourself right at the outset could well unleash spontaneous excuses to not do it again. 
 

Make it a Habit

Habits gain our attention only after they are well formed. Like a rope already well tangled. And bad habits somehow are all we seem to be able to notice. But good habits can be engineered.
 
Socrates made just that point, positing that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
 
Charles Duhigg in the book The Power Of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business speaks to a consistent neurological pattern that governs all habits. It consists of three elements: Cue, Habit, and Reward.
 
The habit loop starts with a Cue. In essence, a trigger that prompts your brain to choose which habit to use and activate it. The Habit is always a physical, mental or emotional routine. Or some combination thereof. Finally, the Reward reinforce the pattern.
 
“To understand how habits work is to learn the secret recipe of how to build them the way you want,” I offered. 
 
“You have the biggest building blocks already in place,” I continued, “strong motivation and belief.”
 
My friend’s challenge, quite obviously, was execution. So I suggested, “find the patterns that you like best when you’re doing it in small increments. Things like place, time of day, what you do before and after. 
 
These are called behavior chains. They are essential to automating execution in the brain.
 
“And minimize choices as much as possible. Fewer options is always better for habit making.”
 

Find the Sweet Spot

Finally, I asked, “as you discover you’re pulling off longer meetings with yourself, how will you figure out the sweet spot?” 
 
“That’s a bridge too far, right now”, she replied wistfully. 
 
Christine Carter, PhD, the authority on the topic, and the author of the book, The Sweet Spot – How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, defines the sweet spot as “that place where your greatest strengths and your greatest personal power overlap with those arenas where you find ease, where there is little resistance or stress.” 
 
I had given my friend a lot to process. I don’t speak to her that often, so this was my only chance to share all the pieces I thought she needed. 
 
So I closed out the topic by asking her to just be mindful of the sweet spot. 
 
We switched to other topics. Family. Empty nest. Politics. Then it was time for her to hustle off to her gate. Yet another six hour  flight to get to work.

Secretly, I wished she’d carve out a few minutes for a brief initial meeting with the most important person in her world.