Time to accelerate

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Despite the saying that time waits for no man, there is a great deal of waiting in today’s business world.  Before the Great Recession came to its technical end in late 2009, companies were keeping their proverbial powder dry in case things got worse.  Next came angst over the speed of recovery, the possibility of a double-dip recession and the general foreboding gloom of “What if things don’t get better?”

Doomsayers have been quick to point out uncertainties around things like health- care reform.  During the run-up to last year’s presidential election, concerns were raised about tax rates.  The question over who would be elected president loomed large.  After the election came the fiscal cliff, then sequestration, the federal debt-limit ceiling, and now the federal budget. All told, there were lots of supposed reasons to do — well, nothing.

The certainty of uncertainty has become too familiar.  In fact, there never has been a time when all was certain.  Have we totally forgotten that business investment is predicated on the idea that with risk comes reward?

When it comes to politics, it is often said that government should be more like business.  Whether that is true or not, most would probably agree that we ought to avoid making business more like government, especially if that means moving at the speed of politics, which of late has been maddeningly slow.

Let’s take a moment to rescript this paradigm:  The Great Recession came and went.  In the process, jobs that had been wrung out of the economy by more efficient technologies were eliminated, never to return.  Working from a lower cost basis, business earnings now are exceeding expectations.  Elections have taken place with little change to political norms.  Housing prices are on the rise.  The S&P 500 recently hit an all-time high.  Companies have cash-heavy balance sheets.

For those willing to go forward in business, the difference between these two worldviews is an OPPORTUNITY writ large.  Those waiting for perfect conditions with certain returns will see little or no reward, while those willing to move forward with plans to build their businesses can realize significant future gains.  As a banking friend once told me, only a compliance officer can stay safely on the payroll for saying, “No.”

In fact, the art of business is getting to “Yes.”  We want to be able to say yes to hiring people, yes to investing capital, yes to marketing programs and to all the other things that lead to business growth.

Let’s try to advance the positive paradigm a little farther forward.  What will business results be like for leaders versus followers in this economic recovery?  When others are still sitting on the sidelines, isn’t this absolutely the best time to invest?

Years ago, a publisher friend of mine informed me that he had let go a mutual acquaintance.  I asked what the problem had been, and he said “Well, the fella thought he was an intersection, and what I needed was a highway.”  Closely examined, this comment isn’t as cryptic as it seems.  It summarizes a lot of what we know about leadership.

The real job of leaders isn’t to play traffic cop, blowing whistles and pointing out stop signs.  That’s what happens at intersections, and it is a lot more akin to the role of a manager than the role of a leader.  After all, if we are making good hiring decisions, our people already have enough talent to drive the car and know the difference between red lights and green ones.

The role of the leader is to be more like a highway, encouraging as many people as possible to travel safely in the same direction, to look out for one another and to arrive at their destinations with efficiency.  There is a certain grace to the flow of traffic, and the bigger the highway the greater the results. Fundamentals like collaboration, cooperation, encouragement and establishing a shared sense of purpose are the hallmarks of leadership.

Take a little time to assess what you are to your organization.  Are there stop signs where you’d actually like to see traffic merging?  Are feet hovering over the brakes, instead of applying a bit more pressure on the accelerator?  Leaders encourage people to take some risks; without them there won’t be much reward. 


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