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June 23, 2009

Excerpts: Leading In Tough Times - An Essay from Bob Seelert

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 3:00 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Leading In Tough Times
By Bob Seelert,
Author of Start with the Answer: And Other Wisdom for Aspiring Leaders

The financial crisis that began in 2008 continues to unfold in unprecedented ways, thereby presenting business leaders with incredible challenges. How does one manage in such a crisis-laden environment? Here are "Ten Things To Do" based on my 40+ years in business.
  1. Get the truth out on the table. You need to begin with an open, honest, candid assessment of the facts. Sometimes the truth can be ugly, but you're not in a position to deal with it until you get it out on the table. Making unrealistic assumptions only will prompt inaction, with things getting worse before they get better. Get out in front of the problem.
  2. Establish standards for the new reality. When markets collapse, you can't be sure how far they will fall, but you can establish an expectation for how your company will perform relative to whatever happens. At Saatchi & Saatchi, even though our revenue may be down year to year, we expect to outperform the market by 50%. This sets a high standard for our people. We also recognize that there will be margin pressures, but we expect to "draw the line" at X%", in order to preserve our financial profile for the future. This implies tight management of costs at the same time we aim to outperform the market.
  3. Think long term; Act short term. Downturns in the economy present the opportunity for far-sighted companies to go for share of market. Inevitably, some of your competitors will pull back when times get tough. Take advantage of this to position your enterprise to gain when the inevitable market rebound takes place.
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is the time to increase the frequency of your internal communications and heighten your personal presence in front of the organization. People are understandably nervous and sometimes scared during uncertain times. Now is the opportunity to rally the troops and give them reassurance that your company will be out in front in dealing with what needs to be done.
  5. Get "All hands on deck." Tough times call for extraordinary efforts on the part of every employee. You can't get the job done alone. Now is the time to enlist every person in doing whatever must be done to ensure survival and prosperity. Outhustling your competition is the surest path to gaining share of market.
  6. Get out with customers. Heightening your interaction with customers will keep you tuned in to their needs and give you constant feedback regarding where the environment is headed. Meeting customer needs and exceeding expectations are the two sure pathways to success.
  7. Stay true to what made you great in the first place. Most high performing companies got that way for a reason. Now is not the time to lose sight of this. Toyota has achieved success in the U.S. car market through innovation and continuous improvement. Despite the current downtrend in auto sales, they are innovating by introducing the Venza, and putting into the marketplace the third generation improvement for the Prius. These are the kind of actions that will keep them out in front.
  8. Reframe value for the new environment. Marketers should reassess their messages for relevance in the current economic conditions. Tide always has been the best laundry detergent, but in this environment, it doesn't hurt to remind consumers that its color integrity feature keeps new clothes looking new longer. For Olay it's relevant to mention that the cost of Olay pales in comparison to more invasive or surgical procedures.
  9. Add/Reduce; Create/Eliminate. Despite the economy, it's likely that your company needs to add some new positions and create some new capabilities in order to meet the demands of the marketplace. You should press ahead in these areas, but you need to have the organization simultaneously thinking about how it reduces and eliminates things as well. Tough times force trade-offs.
  10. Set tight priorities. Now, more than ever, is the time to set tight priorities. Decide what is core, and what is non-core, and focus your time and attention on the critical few things that will make a difference.
    Tough times can bring out the best in organizations and prompt actions that will position your company for future success. Follow these ten things and you will do well.

©2009 Bob Seelert, author of Start with the Answer: And Other Wisdom for Aspiring Leaders
Author Bio
Bob Seelert, author of Start with the Answer: And Other Wisdom for Aspiring Leaders, is Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, a leading global ideas and advertising company. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School, he has been CEO of five companies, has built brands and businesses, been a party to two mega-mergers, and enacted numerous turnarounds. He has served on boards of directors of companies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. He lives in New Canaan, Connecticut.

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.