As far as painful memories are concerned, most of the extremely difficult decisions we as leaders had to make after the Fall of 2008 will remain with us forever. The world was changing, and we had to change to stay afloat.
Resources were limited everywhere we turned. Time was tight, and we were stretched thin. For those of us who prevailed, there are lessons. We learned much about our surroundings, ourselves, and our teams. While most of our organizations have emerged smaller, we have come through this time stronger, with a renewed understanding of who we are and what is possible. We have learned that while we need to adapt to the changing tides, our principles remain steadfast.
And now, with the wind blowing ever so softly at our backs, we sense that we can finally breathe a sigh of relief - or at least, we can breathe a bit easier. As we feel the breeze and reflect on what we've been through, let's consider the wall against which we've had our backs. How do we feel as we start to move away from that wall? Uncomfortable? Released? Unsure? Hesitant? Ready for the next challenge?
Where do we go from here?
As we begin to move forward, one thing is for certain - uncertainty looms. We must decide where we are going and which direction we should take. We sense a glimmer of hope, but there is that strange inkling in the back of our minds: When the wall was against our backs, at least we knew where we were.
Daily we get mixed signals from the forecasters. That light at the end of the tunnel seems bright. Yet far too many are still unemployed. So where do we stand today, and where do we go from here? We must take what we have learned from the past years' turmoil and apply those lessons to the future.
Evaluate yourself. When we're challenged, we end up learning a great deal about ourselves - our natural strengths and limitations. We've certainly learned to work harder and smarter. And we've learned to worry less about what we don't have and focus more on how to maximize what we've got. From there, our true leadership emerges.
The first thing we as leaders have to do is to understand ourselves and understand how we connect with those around us. Self-awareness is the stepping stone to successful leadership. Can we honestly evaluate what sets us apart and what might be holding us back? Do we have the confidence to surround ourselves with others who are far better than us in certain areas? Do we know when to rely upon ourselves and when we need insight from others? Are we able to create an environment where collaboration, honesty, and open communication fill the airwaves? We don't need to have all of the answers ourselves, but we do need to recognize the right answers when we hear them, and we must know when to ask the right questions.
Create a trusting environment. As leaders, we need to foster an environment of genuine openness in which ideas, opinions, observations, and disagreements are encouraged. It is up to us to set that tone and to stay in touch with top performers inside and outside of our organization. We must listen to their take on what is happening and their forecast for what is around the corner. How do they feel things are going? What are they confident about? What are they concerned about?
We must at all times encourage conversation and debate. Most importantly, we must be able to distinguish between random background noises and those significant messages, however faint, that need our attention. To truly gauge the temperature, we need to be aware of our own organization's pulse.
Are we encouraging those around us to step up and speak their minds, or are we looking for people to agree with us? Are we trying to uncover the truth, or are we more interested in having the final word? Only by trusting ourselves can we trust others. And that's when others will find trust in us.
Skip Cimino, chief executive officer of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, has learned about trust from his experience as a leader within the business and government sectors, before coming to healthcare. "Clearly, the issue of having to do more with less is paramount for all hospital administrators in the country," Cimino says. "The way I look at this is not from a command-and-control perspective. Instead, we have invited input from all of our employees, from every level of the organization, to determine how we can reduce our resources while still improving the delivery of services that we need to effectively run a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year organization.
"Our belief is that in economic times like this - or in any time - the people closest to the source of the work potentially have the best ideas about how to do the work more efficiently. My job is to listen to them and to implement the best ideas."
Build your dream team. After checking your own temperature and evaluating your organization's pulse, you must create a team that will enable success in years to come. Cimino describes his process of identifying and recognizing the people on his staff who have the talent and the potential to contribute valuable ideas. "First and foremost, I sincerely believe that people come to work every day to give you an honest day's work for an honest day's pay," he says. "I do not believe that people come into the workplace with the intent to not do a good job. I also believe, inherently, that people bring enormous value to an organization, and, therefore, I believe you have to place real trust in your interactions with people.
"I also believe that leading is about delegating, which implies a measure of allowing risk taking, and not letting risk taking be penalized," Cimino adds. "We all have to keep learning. As I look back over my career, I learned from failures and mistakes probably more than I did from the positive outcomes.
"In the end," Cimino notes, "it's all about teamwork. It's not about the leader standing in front of the pack. Sure, your responsibility is to help lead, shape, guide, and direct. But you can't do that as an individual to move an organization, particularly an organization of size. It takes a lot of people working together in a harmonious fashion to create progress. In my view, teamwork is essential to any successful organization. Helping to create those teams is one of the most important things a leader can do."
Leaders must be cognizant of with whom they surround themselves. "We are continually striving to create a better, more cohesive team," Cimino concludes. "The hope is for all of us, including myself, to understand that we have strengths, that there are opportunities for us to improve ourselves, and that together - as a more cohesive unit - we will be able to function more efficiently and understand what our strengths and opportunities are among each other. And in doing so, we will then be able to guide the organization more effectively as its leadership team."
Developing an effective team from a group of talented individuals can be very challenging. The executive team is often composed of people who are at the heart of the organization but view the organization through different lenses. Conflicts can arise simply because these people either speak a different language or come at a problem from a different perspective. As the leader, your role is to create a collaborative approach through which people understand that they are coming to the table for the right reasons. The balancing act involves helping team members understand the reasons each of them are contributing - and appreciate each other's strengths and perspectives to truly collaborate.
Teamwork is about the willingness of individuals to step up, take responsibility, become accountable, accept risk, and move forward. As a leader, you have to create an environment in which each team member feels that he can do the things that need to be done for the organization, recognizing that organizations do not succeed because of a single individual, but because everybody is in alignment, and everyone understands the strategic vision and the tactical plan that will move the organization forward.
It is all about setting a positive tone, believing in the people you surround yourself with, allowing them to make mistakes from time to time, and creating an environment where they know that you believe in and trust them. Only when there is trust can teamwork and true collaboration flourish.
Collaborating for future success
Molson Coors has developed an integrated process that enables leadership teams to collaborate most effectively and productively. Bree Ranieri, director of human resources at Molson Coors, explains, "We've undergone some basic team assimilation. We want team members to understand each other - specifically what strengths each individual brings to the team. We also want them to understand how they complement one another or where there might be some group think or gaps for which the team will need to bring in other members or outside constituents to enhance the decision-making process.
"We focus significantly on people development," adds Ranieri. "Part of bringing out the best in people is really thinking differently and being an organization that can encourage a truly creative element in all of us."
It is possible for a group of talented individuals to become a team. "Certainly we had some larger goals toward which the team ultimately was working," Ranieri explains. "But we decided up-front that we needed to have a core level of trust and respect among the team, and we also established some operating norms with the team."
The message, as we emerge from these tough times, is to focus at least as much on developing the potential of the people working for us as we do on the results we are trying to achieve. Then, if we listen carefully to the signals around us, develop our own capabilities, believe in the people around us, and build collaborative teams, we will exceed our expectations.