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I’m sitting with an executive client the other day and she’s telling me about the latest business challenge and wondering when things will pick up.  This is our Groundhog Day conversation; at least once a month for a year.  Not only is she drained and trying to keep up her own spirits but she hears and feels the low morale of the entire organization.
But then she said, “I know that as a leader I’m supposed to over communicate during troubled times but what can I really say?  There is no good story to tell, I can’t talk openly about all the really bad shit that is going on that we discuss at the executive team meetings and how many times can I say just stay focused and things will get better.”

This sent me into orbit. I gave her a big ole GetRealLeadership bucket of cold water.  Here’s the gist of what I said.

The truth about how executives slog through months of bad business results and draconian decisions they need to make is…not very well.  They lose sleep, eat and/or drink too much, suffer ill health, don’t see their families and they are just as worried about keeping their jobs as the staff is.  At the start of the downturn they do a lot of the stuff they learned at B-school.  They align as a team, sharpen the focus and message, they addres the anxieties and morale issues directly and, yes, they over communicated.  At the beginning of this saga they still had the energy and optimism to do the right thing.

But at some point their human limitations kick in and they struggle to remain productive and upbeat with a 300 pound gorilla hanging on their backs.  In the real world, executives are exhausted and worried and do the best they can to buoy up the troops.

So what is a leader to do that is plausible, doable and will have a positive impact on the staff?

Small things.  Lots and lots of small things.  If you can’t give a rousing team speech, then greet each person with a smile or drop in just to see how he/she is doing.  If you can’t possibly repeat the party line one more time, arrange for an inspiring speaker or send out a thoughtful article or even a funny short story.  Try to turn on a different brain switch in yourself and others.  Start lunchtime walks.  Have chair massage Fridays.  Institute a 15 minute Wednesday morning huddle where everyone shares good news…no matter how small.  And always always have a steady supply of chocolate on your desk.

The point is that sometimes things just suck for a long time.  If everyone knows what they are supposed to focus on and they are making steady progress there is a point when executive communication becomes very hollow and mechanical.  That’s a bad thing.  And there is some health benefit to many of these small gestures that can kick in moments of relief from the stress.  Showing concern for others is a reinforcing feedback loop.  The more you help someone else, the better you end up feeling.  And sometimes that’s all a leader can do.

And what you need to do for yourself is spend more down time with your executive peers.  Each member of the team is in their own private hell, suffering silently, trying to put on the brave face.  This is a good time to strengthen those relationships outside the board room.  Get out of the office and have a drink and bitch (but only with colleagues you can trust!).  Say all those things that are on both of your minds but cannot be spoken in the office.  Eventually you’ll get to that moment when you realize you are in such a bad B movie that you burst out laughing at the ridiculous adventures over the past months.  It’s somewhere around the time when you realize that you have parroted “We see this crisis as an opportunity” more times than you can count and wonder if there is even one staff member who bought that crap!

I can’t say that my client left our meeting in better shape but she sure did appreciate having someplace to just unload.  Now the gorilla only weighs about 250 pounds.

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