First-class coach

Q: I'm in my thirties and a senior manager in a large corporation. I've never led people in a downturn before and I'm finding it a bit of a challenge. The loss of morale, the impending redundancies and the increased direction that my staff require is testing me to my limits. I'm reluctant to ask my line manager for advice, lest I seem incompetent.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A: 'It's hard, unrelenting,' said a client of mine recently. The boss of a sales organisation, he's used to having his order book 75% sold at the start of each month. He now has twice as much inventory to shift in a competitive marketplace, with all his best customers feeling the squeeze. He's old enough to have been affected by the bursting bubble and the downturn of 1991-92, yet these experiences didn't seem much help in managing the current situation better.

Managing when business is booming is easy: many a weak manager has been carried forward by the momentum of the market. But it's different when the chips are down; achieving high performance becomes a real test of your capabilities. So you're wise to recognise that more is required of you - not necessarily different skills, but a greater fluency in using the basics.

The starting place is morale. Low morale and a fear of making mistakes can put a real brake on productivity, just when you need extra effort. You can improve this by word and deed: communication needs to be regular, clear and upbeat.

Gather your team; remind them that this recession is not their fault and that you're all in it together. Let them know they have a choice: 'We can sit around moaning about the credit crunch and how tough things are, or we can decide we're not going to be beaten and together work out ways to be more efficient and more effective.'

Chances are they'll opt for the second, especially if they feel their jobs are on the line. Bonuses may be in short supply, but create some incentives for back-office staff as well as those facing customers, based on their money-saving and money-making ideas. Acknowledge extra effort both personally and publicly.

You may need to review targets. Sometimes, if goals seem too ambitious, people feel that it's not worth trying. Find some quick wins to give them a sense of making progress. At a workshop I ran, sales managers compared notes and agreed that praising people for having achieved a small sale was much more motivating than reminding them of how tiny their deal was compared to the overall target. They'd also noticed that giving everyone a dressing-down about sales performance depresses the troops and results in no extra sales; in contrast, giving each member of the sales team an individual target of making 10 phone calls to lapsed customers not only brought in extra cash but helped everyone feel positive about participating in a concerted effort, whether or not their phone calls bore fruit.

Having to make people redundant may not be pleasant, but it enables you to get rid of poor performers and those who have no potential. Downsizing is a balancing act, though: concede to the accountants' demands for savage head cuts and you will be saddled with high redundancy costs and then find that your firm needs to hire replacements quite soon. New people are expensive to recruit and lack the knowledge and experience of those you let go.

Review your project list on the basis of cost/benefit and decide which plans to discard or shove onto the back burner. But avoid abandoning longer-term initiatives that could make a real difference to success down the track, when the economy picks up. Remember that some successful businesses were rebuilt in a recession, emerging leaner, more agile and more closely focused on the needs of their customers.

There's no reason to stop doing things that help people perform at their best: appraisals to keep them on track, and development so they continue to learn. You may not be able to afford external training but you could follow the example of my sales director client, who arranged a reciprocal training exercise with a major client; this has improved the effectiveness of their interactions and cemented their relationship.

Finally, don't be afraid to consult your line manager. Whether they have sound advice to dispense or not, they'll be flattered to be asked, and you'll be conveying your determination to do a good job.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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