Weathering the storm Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

The challenge for business leaders during these times has turned to trying to keep the business afloat rather than taking risks that can either advance the company or sink it.

“Leaders tend to have less of a focus on how to act, because they feel they can’t control as much in challenging times,” says Dr. Paul Lopez, member of the graduate faculty and lecturer in the department of management and entrepreneurship at Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business. “You also are not as clear on whether a decision is right or wrong, so you don’t make a decision at all or put the decision off.”

Smart Business spoke with Lopez about how sticking to several key values and principles can help you get through challenging times, how to implement a personalized leadership model, and how to focus on opportunities and threats.

What values or principles do leaders need to adopt to get through challenging times?

There are some principles that I have found effective in running a business in the financial services industry. You need to LEAD — Lead by example, Encourage and care for your team, Achieve time-based targets you set, and Dedicate yourself to results. Once you have those elements in place, it’s easy to actually act. When you are constantly moving around and don’t know what you’re grounded on, action becomes inaction. If you have values, you’re sure about what you care about, how you want to act and where you’re taking the business. It makes it so much easier to come in each day and say, ‘I’m in control.’ When you’re not in control, you tend to feel worse and days are more pressing and depressing than ever. And that will happen more often in turbulent times.

How can you put those principles and values in place in your business?

Having a personalized leadership plan around these characteristics is important. Your plan should determine the key opportunities and threats and then ground itself on the foundation of leadership values, which should be relatively constant. You will need to develop your personal leadership principles and goals, pick specific leadership actions, and work on the measurable actions with timelines and supportive tactics to achieve those objectives. It’s a personalized leadership model that you revisit, and it changes based on the environment. You’re looking at the opportunities and threats a little more rigorously and more often because of the changing and challenging environment.

You have to make sure your values are written down and that you actually follow them. If someone were to ask you what your personal and corporate values were, could you quickly give them an ‘elevator speech’ about those values? Are your values grounded? Can you look at yourself in the mirror, week after week, month after month, year after year, and say, ‘I’m living up to my values when I go into work every day’?

How can you implement a personalized leadership model?

Way too often, we spend more time laying out a vacation plan than planning and implementing the leadership actions that make a lasting impact on the business and those around us, especially in a challenging environment. First, you have to document a written leadership plan and preferably share it with an accountability partner. Second, create a systematic approach to implementing the plan; develop the key action steps and how you will communicate to and involve others who will help you as a leader to get these done. Finally, put a feedback mechanism in place so you can determine how you are doing on a regular basis.

Many times, leaders don’t put time aside to think about their leadership plan, but you have to make time for this, especially when the environment is turbulent. And follow the SMART principle for your plan: make it Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-specific.

How do you focus on the opportunities while also focusing on the threats?

You can either look at the glass as half-full or half-empty. Opportunities and threats are the ying and yang of business. On the opportunities side, you look at the internal and external factors that represent opportunities. The threats side focuses on what you can and cannot control.

Get input from those people in your organization whom you trust so you build a common environmental picture of the opportunities and threats surrounding your business. Then decide what the specific actions are that you can take as a leader, based on the specific principles and values that you live by, to achieve desired business goals.

How can you show your values to employees and encourage them to develop their own personalized leadership model?

Employees want to know that you’re the same leader in good times and bad, and that you have a foundation of values that they can depend on. The Jekyll and Hyde leader is one of the hardest ones to work for, because employees don’t know which side they’re seeing that day.

Communicating these values comes from the top, followed by living those values by example every day.

Dr. Paul Lopez is a member of the graduate faculty and lecturer in the department of management and entrepreneurship at Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business, and executive vice president of Element Funding (elementfunding.com). Reach him at (770) 604-6026 or paul_lopez@kennesaw.edu.