At times like this, when we read about another round of redundancies every day, we have to spare a thought not only for the unfortunate people whose lives have so suddenly been forced into a new direction, but also for those who are left behind – particularly the leaders who have had to ‘do the deed’.
It’s hard for the leaders themselves to plead for sympathy. After all, they still have a job and also some degree of control over their own personal fates; they are the ones making the decisions. Yet leaders always tell me that it is the hardest thing to do to have to tell a colleague – whom they may well regard as a friend – that their future lies outside the company (or some such euphemism).
I can still vividly recall a 'skills training' session I ran back in the early 90s. My client was an Irish food production company and, one Sunday morning, I faced a group of 25 senior managers who had all turned up (voluntarily) for some help to prepare for the announcement of factory closures in their local areas the following day. Production was being transferred from a number of local plants into one modern high-tech facility, hence the redundancies.
Their acute nervousness quickly became apparent, and it stemmed largely from the fact that they were having to break this news to people with whom they had either gone to school, attended church, or certainly spent time in the pub. They had no idea how to make the announcement, nor how to face them subsequently in one-to-one conversations. We spent the whole day planning personal strategies both for making the initial announcements and having these difficult conversations. The preparation was not about collecting their facts and figures and rehearsing the business case; it was about handling emotions (their own and their employees’) and learning to be ‘human’.
‘Being human’ and authentic as a leader is becoming a core skill for leaders in this new environment. Our recent research here at Stanton Marris has highlighted this need for genuine communication skills from leaders, and not just for handling difficult news. I think we are all witnessing a huge societal shift as a result of the financial crisis; the old models of authoritative leadership have gone for good, and the call now is for honesty and accountability (think MPs and their expenses) and a more personal style of communication (leave the crafted scripts behind).
Most leaders feel they have to work it out for themselves, and muddle through as best they can. After all, honesty and accountability are not what they teach at business school. But there is an opportunity here to ask for/give practical support. There is a growing demand for a new type of communication skills – or what I would rather call ‘leading in tough times’: learning how to be resilient, to be genuine and above all, to be true to yourself.
I’ll never forget my Irish managers at the end of that day as they realised that they would survive the ordeal personally - and more importantly, they would help ease the impact of the bad news on their people - simply by being honest about how they felt.
Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in making strategy work through effective leadership, employee engagement and organisation development. By helping organisations make sense of the issues that stop change being sustainable, it enables them to manage the risks associated with strategy development and execution. For more information visit www.stantonmarris.com