Turn the Worst of Times into the Best of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” – Charles Dickens

Paraphrasing Charles Dickens, I like to believe, “It is the worst of times that became the best of times.” It is through challenges we have our greatest learning, the worst pain we can find the most joy, and during the toughest times the most strength. In the hopes that it will help you in your journey, I want to share with you how one of the most difficult moments in my career became one of my proudest.

Due to downturns in the economy our biggest client took a big hit on sales, putting us in a position of having to layoff a large percentage of our workforce. Over 500 families would be impacted. It was one of the biggest tests as a leader I have experienced. The pride I would eventually feel, did not come from being the one in charge, it came from working with a team that put their heart and soul into protecting our employees so they could serve our clients, their customers and in turn fulfill the obligation to our shareholders. Our focus was on maintaining a balance between all of these.

1)     Trust Your Team – As a leader, it was tempting to hole away somewhere and hold the cards tight to my chest until I could clearly see the next move. Everyone in the organization would be impacted in some way or another. How do I assure my leadership team they were safe when I knew it may not be true? I quickly reminded myself, I had chosen the people on my team for a reason. They are leaders who know how to lead during good and bad times. They were people I knew would step up in a time of crisis and would be more worried about the people around them than themselves. They were also subject matter experts in their area of discipline. They had the answers to many of the questions that needed to be answered.

2)     Acknowledge Wants Needs & Fears – It does not matter whether your talking about employees, clients or shareholders. Each and everyone of them have wants, needs and fears as it relates to the business. In our case, we had to step back and look at each segment one at a time. By exploring these 3 simple questions we were able to anticipate and build a plan that addressed the most critical items.

3)     Be Consistent – Some of the wants, needs and fears crossed over between groups. They all wanted to know why, when, who and how this would impact the business. It was critical that we were consistent in our answers no matter how it impacted them individually. We could not supply one answer to the investors and then provide another to the employees. If the answers were inconsistent then all trust would be gone. During times like these, trust is the one thing you absolutely need to protect more than anything.

4)     Document & Execute the Plan – Find someone REALLY good at organization and project management and bring them into the fold. We immediately included our marketing and communications leader to help drive the roll-out. Once the plan was set, she was officially deputized as my right hand and was empowered to keep everyone, including me, in check. Fortunate for me, she did not shy away from this responsibility and orchestrated communication across multiple locations in such a way that the mass majority heard either from me directly or from another member of my leadership team. This was no easy feat when you consider we were owned by a publicly traded company, had 50+ clients in 11 locations spread over 4 different countries. But, in the end, we made it happen.

5)     Follow Up is Critical – It does not matter what type of business you are in, technology, manufacturing, food services or government, we are all in the people business. People have real emotions and feelings. That is why we started with their wants, needs and fears. For some, emotions come to the surface immediately, some appear days and weeks later. Our job was to be there when they needed us. People will have questions you could never anticipate that will need to be answered. Think ahead time of how those questions will be handled. It could be a town hall, regular email updates or an open FAQ posted somewhere electronically. By keeping people informed, you we help alleviate many of their fears. Don’t just say you are going to do it, you have to do it!

In order for the business to survive, grow and thrive, the main responsibility for a CEO/business owner is to maintain that balance between employees, clients and shareholders. To maintain long term viability, there are times when one area may take precedence over the other. The current circumstances we are all facing right now, is NOT the time to choose. It is more important than ever before, that balance is considered with every decision made.

Linda Ruffenach

Founder / Chief Strategic Officer at Execuity. Linda is an experienced entrepreneur, skilled facilitator, and bourbon badass. Her 20+ years of C-level experience enables her to relate to the challenges business owners face every day. As the former CEO of a $100 million international enterprise, she has been through almost every stage a company can experience from fast growth, rapid decline, to complete transformation. In addition to running multiple businesses, Linda is Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Louisville's School of Business, leading and mentoring undergrad and graduate students on their path to business ownership Linda’s superpower is turning strategy into results.