What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time we were approaching the conclusion of the primary season in a historic presidential election. Twelve months later, those changes are reverberating through Washington, D.C., but we’re also focused on history of another kind.
We’re living through economic turmoil that is unique in our lifetimes. In homes and offices around the world, we’re grappling with the impact of these changes. For those who lead legal teams–large and small–the challenges are substantial.
There’s no single recipe for effective leadership in this climate.
Different approaches make sense for different individuals and organizations. But here’s a short list that has shaped the approach in our own department:
1. Be decisive. It’s important to move decision-making even faster than usual. While some decisions may need to wait for companywide direction about budgets and headcount, move forward quickly but thoughtfully to address those issues you do control.
2. Be transparent. This is a time to overcommunicate even more than usual. Be accessible and visible to your people. Meet with your teams in person. In a large organization, use tools such as videos through the corporate intranet so you can connect with people in a more personal way.
When you communicate, acknowledge explicitly that a tough time like this is difficult for people. Address questions head on. Share everything you can. Be direct in describing your decisions and honest about what remains unknown.
3. Talk about goals, not just the budget. Don’t allow the budget to become separate and apart from everything else. As you communicate, talk first about your team’s goals rather than the budget. Pursue a strategy in which you’re confident, even if you have to adjust your available resources. Then talk about your budget in the context of your goals and strategy.
4. Don’t lose focus. Remind people of the opportunities. Our jobs are just as important and our long-term opportunities are just as great in 2009 as they were in 2008. Don’t allow the economy to distract you or your team from what you’re there to accomplish.
5. Don’t become a victim. In a time like this, there are many external elements that none of us can control. But there’s still a lot we can. Remind your team of what they have the ability to control themselves. Then help them take the initiative. And even if a decision needs to be approved by someone else, remind them that the buck starts with them. Senior leaders can’t sign off on good ideas that never get to them. Assume responsibility for giving ideas the attention they deserve.
6. Embrace change. Recessions of this magnitude change economic output in ways that are difficult to predict. To be successful, companies must adapt. Help your team to identify and embrace the changes that are needed.
7. Hold constant to lasting values. Amid so much change, it’s important to remind your team that some of the most important things remain constant. Successful teams remain grounded in lasting values like integrity, teamwork, diversity and respect for each other. Now more than ever, leaders need to be strong role models for these values.
In this type of economy, leading a team is more challenging and important than ever. Every company and team may need a somewhat different list to define the right leadership approach. But in this climate, one thing is certain: We each need to arrive at the office in the morning with a list of our own.