Understanding the Tasks of a Leader in Turbulent Times

The current financial meltdown and economic collapse have created an epidemic of confusion and fear in the workplace and beyond. Net worth has plummeted and so have confidence, security and respect for leaders and institutions.

The responsibility of a leader is to guide an organization, not only financially, but also toward psychological stability. In order to foster a sense of steadiness despite external disruption, it is valuable to examine some of the emotional forces in play and actions to take in order to keep people focused and engaged.

Self-awareness should be your first priority. 

Knowing your own emotional responses to risk, uncertainty and danger is essential for successfully leading an organization during upheaval. The current crisis can trigger very personal memories and fears of trauma and loss, with unintended behavioral consequences. Echoes of earlier catastrophes can lead to withdrawal at the very times you need to be most available to others.

At the other extreme, leaders who lack selfawareness can create toxic organizational environments when they turn the pressure they feel into angry, demanding behavior with members of their senior team.

Demonstrate empathy in the broadest sense. 

It is important both to recognize and acknowledge what people in your organization are experiencing. While not all the problems caused by stress can be fixed, you can start by demonstrating an understanding that the pain is real. When behavioral problems surface, remind yourself to filter them through your understanding of individual and organizational stresses. Your empathy will guide you toward providing what people need most right now—your availability, regular communication and a plan for the way forward.

Create a sense of urgency without breeding fear.

Now more than ever, organizations need everyone’s commitment and willingness to problem-solve and innovate. If a staff is swamped by fear and uncertainty, capacities for thought and productive action will shut down. Communication is your most powerful tool for limiting adverse emotional reactions and keeping people engaged. The frequency and timing of communication, as well as its content, is critical. Your staff wants to hear from you frequently and regularly. They will be tuning in for a clear and honest accounting of what you see and the actions you will take. Especially in times of crisis, they appreciate straight talk and are turned off by unemotional “corporate speak.” Also, pay attention to the timing of your communications. Giving too much nonspecific advance information about the austerity measures to come can breed toxic reactions—nobody functions well with the sword of Damocles hanging over them.

Demonstrate a commitment to the growth and development of the organization’s talent in bad times as well as good. 

You can model engagement by giving people the thoughtful, individualized feedback they need. Affirm your stars; they need to know their value and their role in the organization’s future. Hold up a mirror to poorer performers and challenge them to improve in critical areas. The best managers earn their staff ’s respect and gratitude even when delivering tough messages. If you give the proper time and attention to managing and recruiting talent, your organization will be better positioned in the marketplace when recovery begins.

Assert personal and organizational core values. 

People want leaders to point them consistently toward what’s most important about the organization’s mission, operating principles and codes of conduct. This is a time for pruning and refining your business and for strengthening its core. It is also a time to make sure that your behavior aligns with the values you espouse. Your integrity is now more than ever a critical component of your leadership, so make sure that if you are asking others to sacrifice that you are also doing your share. Finally, remember that how you handle the current turbulence will have a powerful long-term impact on your leadership credibility. Success in facing these tough tasks will also have a long-term impact on your own growth as a leader. The very culture of business may well be moving into a period of restructuring, in which roles, processes, values and priorities will be refashioned. This will present important opportunities for you. Don’t go it alone. Strengthen your network and reach out to those who can help you. Check your own denial or emotional reactions; seek and be open to feedback.

From No Job to New Job

Like anyone who has lost a job, CEOs who part ways with associations are often left wondering what’s next and hoping the experience will not darken their future job prospects. But for some, rebounding is not as difficult as you might think.

For Craig Fuller, the end came in 2006. During more than six years, Fuller had been the CEO of the National Association for Chain Drug Stores, which represents retail chain pharmacies and suppliers. He felt he had been successful, especially in influencing the debate on Medicare reform and its implementation.

But when the board wanted to go in a different direction, “it looked like a good time for me to do something else,” Fuller said.

Out of a job, Fuller didn’t despair. Instead, he focused on the things his busy schedule as a CEO would not allow, like flying his Beechcraft Bonanza airplane and sailing in the Caribbean.

Fuller also reconstructed The Fuller Company, his private consulting firm. Having worked in Washington since 1981 in posts ranging from chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush to principal at the public relations firm The Wexler Group, Fuller had no problem finding clients. “The advantage of being in town for a while is you have a lot of friends and a lot of relationships,” he said.

It wasn’t long before some of the firms where Fuller was consulting began recruiting him. In 2007, when the communications and public relations firm APCO Worldwide asked him to be executive vice-president, he accepted. He had been working for himself for only a year.

“I’ve always operated under the theory that as you close one door another one opens and another one after that,” said Fuller, who has recently been tapped by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as its next CEO.

For association CEOs, the door often closes sooner than they would hope. The average tenure for a trade group chief executive is just over six years, according to AssociationIntel, an online database of associations, leader and salary information. Because of today’s short tenures, it is important for CEOs to prepare an exit strategy, say professional job coaches, recruiters and CEOs who have successfully rebounded.

Gone are the days when CEOs spend an entire career at one association, Fuller said. Just like CEOs in the private sector, it’s become common to see turnover in five to eight years, he said. “Boards change. The people who hired you rotate out and new people come in. You always have to be prepared.”

Steve Axelrod, an executive consultant and job coach in New York City, often consults with both nonprofit and for-profit CEOs who find themselves out of a job. Not all of them fare as well as Fuller, but many do, he said.

Axelrod says it’s important for a CEO to find a “healthy narrative” about why the job didn’t work out and to focus on what’s next instead of dwelling on the past. “Losing a job or moving from job to job is not as much of a stigma as it used to be,” he said. “A key to surviving is having the presence of mind to realize that this is one chapter in my life and there will be other chapters.”

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Charlie Ingersoll, a senior client partner at the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, said recruiters are leery about prospects who have left on less than stellar terms. It’s not something a CEO should try to spin or hide, he said. “We are going to do due diligence so we are going to know about it,” he said.

Job candidates who left their former jobs under a dark cloud should be ready to take some of the responsibility, he said, because in all breakups, there are two sides to the story, and usually everybody is a little wrong.

During interviews, Ingersoll says former CEOs should not present themselves as victims. If they truly did something wrong, he thinks they might benefit from a position lower on the totem pole. “There are people who fumble, so to speak,” he said. “Sometimes they need to go back to being a senior staff member someplace.”

One way to avoid the fallout is to know what you are getting into before you take a job. In 2003, Lynn Nicholas was excited to be tapped to lead the American Diabetes Association. But she quickly learned it was a bad fit. Nicholas thought she would be directing policy, but the biggest portion of the job was fundraising, which “is not my skill set,” she said.

Nicholas, who had a trade association background, said she also did not like working for a patient advocacy group, where passionate volunteers want to have a hand in the daily machinery of the organization. “They want to be involved in the day-to-day aspects of everything, from what hotel a meeting is held at, to what is being served for dinner,” she said.

In 2006, the association released Nicholas from her three-year contract. Even though she didn’t like the job, losing it hurt. “On a verypersonal level, for a short while, it made me feel like I had been a failure,” she said. “It made me question my potential and my ability.”

For the first time since 1976, Nicholas said she was looking for a job instead of fielding offers from recruiters. The situation made her reassess her strengths and what she wanted out of her career. It would only take nine months before she was working again.

In 2007, the CEO search committee for the Massachusetts Hospital Association chose Nicholas. During her interview, Nicholas’s short tenure at American Diabetes Association came up. “I was very transparent about it and honest,” she said. “I said ‘I know myself better now. I’m a better and stronger leader because of the experience.'”

Joe Eaton is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

Tips for professional rebounding

Whether a job loss comes from outright dismissal or a more gentle invitation to leave, executive coach Steve Axelrod has these suggestions to make the most of the situation:

  • Take the opportunity to reflect and learn about yourself. Develop a complete narrative about who you are and your strengths and weaknesses.
  • You will feel a range of emotions including anger, shame, guilt and rage. That’s normal. But try to avoid self-pity and withdrawal. It will get you nowhere.
  • Find your support network or personal “board of directors.” People usually think family first, but sometimes spouses and other family members are just as stressed out and confused by your job loss as you are. Look to professional colleagues as well.
  • Activate and build your network. This is primary. Your job now is to look for a new job. The key to finding one is working your network.
  • Talk to associates and tell them what you are looking for. No one is going to give you a job unless they know you want one.