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Looking at leadership on a smaller scale

Posted: October 7, 2008 8:58 p.m.
Updated: December 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The current financial crisis has owners, managers and employees worried about their companies, their jobs and their futures.

More than 20 years ago I went through something similar as a manager and employee.

The company I was working for eventually went into bankruptcy. I can see now that the leaders of the business could have handled the situation much better than they did. I could have done some things differently as well.

It wasn't a pleasant descent from working for a solid midsize consumer products company to getting your paycheck in the form of a cashiers check every couple of weeks.

Looking back
Hindsight is almost always 20-20. I write this years later without malice or anger, just from a vantage point of someone who has gone through what many people today are experiencing: employed but with an uncertain future.

The company that employed me also employed some of the most dynamic and interesting people I have ever worked with and for. They were professionals and the politics, as improbable as it sounds, were so minimal that it was an absolute pleasure to work there. Everyone was focused on getting along and getting their jobs done.

The turbulence started when the company drifted into a cash crunch. One day we were flying along, safe and smooth, and the next day it seemed people were being bounced around without knowing what was happening.

The leadership responded by doing a cut-back on personnel. We were overstaffed, so the idea of some people being asked to leave wasn't unexpected.

Not very many people left the first time there was a layoff. But three more layoffs followed at roughly 60 day intervals.

The leaders could have better communicated about what was taking place. No one liked working in the "dark" without some understanding of what was taking place. What I wished the leaders had done is leveled with everyone about what the situation actually was.

Like far too many people in an organization, I was making a good salary and was expected to be a good soldier, so who was I to ask the tough questions of the leaders?

I should have, because the truth then, as now, was that it was my company. I worked there too; I worked very hard there and was dedicated to the success of the organization.

I did not have skin in the game; I was not a shareholder. But I was taking a significant risk to my reputation, career and finances by working for a company that couldn't afford to keep me on the payroll.

I should have had one of those "fierce conversations" with my boss and his boss to demand what was going on.

Loyal soldiers, however, whatever their rank, aren't supposed to question the wisdom of generals. Generals by virtue of their rank are supposed to know everything.

The leaders could have developed and shared a plan that they wanted the managers and employees to implement with the goal of turning things around. That meant getting out of the cash crunch.
Later it surfaced that no one was getting financial reports explaining what had happened and no one was calculating any projections to see what was going to happen.

It was if the accounting and finance departments had stopped doing their jobs. Yet these folks showed up daily, acted as if they were doing something and kept getting paid. What they produced, no one knew.

Led by the blind
In short, the company was being lead by the blind. Not only didn't the leadership know what was going on, they didn't know when or how it would end.

As leaders, they failed the company because they did not have the proper tools to successfully manage the business.

As leaders, they failed the employees and the families of those employees by not communicating anywhere near as often as they could have or should have about what was taking place.

As leaders, they failed to understand the emotional impact of putting hard working and loyal people through the turmoil and pain of the long slide into bankruptcy.

In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins refers to "facing the brutal facts of your current reality" and the leaders of this particular organization chose to ignore reality. They also ignored the brutal facts.

After almost a year of this, I was laid off, whatever that means. I took it to mean that I was out of work, in a city where I knew very few people. I felt anger, pain and despair, but I landed on my feet and moved on.

During that dark year I asked myself more than a few times "what is going to happen to me?" and the answer was always the same: when this job is over, find another one. It may take some time, but someone will hire you because good, hard working people are always in short supply.

Kenneth W. Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums in Valencia. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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