Friday, May 1, 2009
Viewpoint by Anna Stuart, Vice President

Recent conversations with clients and colleagues – and the seemingly endless media litany of layoffs, closures, cost cutting – take me back to the early 1990s, which many of us recall from a perspective quite different from our current one. In that recession, many of today’s corporate and public sector leaders were employees, or perhaps frontline or middle managers. It is probable that their experience in that time has shaped the philosophy and values they bring to their current leadership roles.

They recall the uncertainty within their workplaces, along with the fear that resulted from it. And they recall – or experienced – the demoralization that came with massive layoffs, wage rollbacks, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of apparently random forces of change. They observed the characteristics of the organizations that survived and were even strengthened by that recession, as well as the behaviours of those that didn’t make it – or emerged as employers of last resort.

Many leaders have applied lessons from the uncertainty they felt during that earlier recession to lay a strong foundation so the steps they take in response to today’s crisis don’t prove disastrous in the long haul. How have they done that?

They’re connected with their employees – Remember that old trick of “managing by walking around”? That’s part of it. Leaders are visible; they’re accessible. They know that John Doe in the parts department has a son who won the provincial speech competition, and they know that Mary Smith in accounts is nursing her sick mother. At the annual golf tournament, their foursome is composed by random draw of participants, not by rank. And if they are uncomfortable with the ‘touchy-feely’ personal approach, they connect with their employees by acknowledging good work and professional achievement.

They’ve fostered strong communications networks – Personal connection allows leaders to engage their employees and all levels of management in continuing, regular, and two-way communication. They’ve already established a relationship of trust within their organizations based on honest communication and accessibility – they tell the team the truth, and they encourage and listen to honest responses.

Their frontline and middle managers have the information, the skills and the authority to be open and honest with their teams – and with their bosses. Workers understand their jobs: they know where savings can be achieved with least impact on service or morale; they know what the clients they deal with are thinking; and they know when workplace stress is affecting productivity. They’ll share that knowledge with a manager who provides a sincere opportunity to do so. When tough times strike, that toxic cycle of rumour, gossip and prediction of doom can’t be established in a workplace where employees have information they trust, and know that their opinions and observations are heard and valued.

Good communication will help keep the team together and focused on the objective during a recession. But communication without the supporting actions will be futile. Many organizations will claim that “Our greatest asset is our people”. That claim is put to the test when costs, and possibly jobs, need to be cut. Leaders who understand the relationship between respect and productivity ensure that cost cutting isn’t concentrated on programs that support and affirm the values of their employees. They balance the savings against the cost of loss of morale (and productivity) that could result from cutting such things as flex time, job-sharing, or professional development opportunities.

Layoffs are perhaps the greatest test of an organization’s culture. While remaining employees may understand the need for staff reductions, they judge the leadership on its respect and compassion for their departing colleagues. Their loyalty to the organization, and their commitment to work in the absence of long-time co-workers, will be influenced by perceived fairness of the process. Organizations that are scrupulous about fairness and respect during tough times will be more likely to keep good employees when times improve and other employers come knocking – and they’ll be in a better position to hire (or rehire) additional talent.

Rough economic times can be compared with a rough sea: the captain, with full knowledge of the vessel’s capability and the sailing plan, has responsibility for decisions to weather the storm safely, but his job is much easier if the crew and passengers also understand the overall direction, and know how to take advantage of strengths and compensate for weaknesses of the vessel. The crew and passengers are also more likely to sign on for another voyage!

Anna Stuart is a Vice President at Kightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading integrated human capital solutions provider. Throughout her 20-year career, Anna has provided recruitment, strategic and operational advisory services to government, industry and family business throughout Atlantic Canada.

Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Managing Partner
902.424.1144