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Special to the Austin Business Journal – Thursday, December 15, 2016 – See at the Austin Business Journal

Let’s face it, every organization goes through highs and lows, especially in startup mode. While milestones are often celebrated, there are the inevitable tough times all leaders need to face. These are the moments that you least want to start attempting to build morale and performance.

In today’s volatile environment, business and nonprofit leaders are increasingly called upon to deal with budget cutbacks, downsizing, public relations crises and other pressing challenges. Executives who have successfully navigated through difficult circumstances say the time to “rally the troops” must start long before serious problems arise.

Michael Beer, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of “High Commitment, High Performance: How to Build a Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage,” says leaders of high-performing organizations view their employees differently than other leaders.

“They see them as an asset, and care about them as people and work hard to frame the mission of the firm in a way that creates meaning,” Beer writes. “Consequently they manage downturns very differently.”

These leaders don’t fixate on short-term results. Instead, they plan ahead and consistently guide the efforts of all employees using three fundamental disciplines: honest communication, respect, and a personal commitment to doing what they say.

 Open communication: Creating and effectively communicating a vision is a vital leadership role according to Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University. In a speech she delivered — Leadership in Transformational Times: The Critical Role of Communications, Values, and Vision — she compared effective leadership to a compass in a storm. The best leaders point the way through change with a vision that inspires all employees.

This is why successful leaders also reinforce values in their communications. “Shared values provide direction during times of uncertainty, comfort during periods of difficult change, and inspiration in the face of opportunity,” Stephenson said.

Dom Caruso, president and COO of Leo Burnett Canada, stresses the importance of communicating and listening more during difficult times. His company conducts a comprehensive annual survey to learn what’s on employees’ minds. A few times a year management also holds town hall meetings to share successes and challenges and to address these and other priority issues.

While technology is increasingly taking over, for these leaders it never replaces face-to-face communication. Making an effort to connect personally with employees, particularly when times are difficult, they find, reduces misunderstandings and builds trust.

• Personal commitment: Dom Caruso makes the point that securing employees’ commitment also requires walking the talk. “People need to know there is no gap between what management says is important and what actually happens,” he said. Leaders’ actions are expected to be consistent with their communications, addressing adverse circumstances in a way that respects the organization’s vision and values.

• Respect: When executives are guiding employees through major transitions, they ask for input and respect the opinions they receive. They also acknowledge results and express gratitude. Caruso affirms that leaders must recognize the impact of their tough decisions and show appreciation to people for their efforts and sacrifices.

Leaders who want to sustain morale and performance during difficult times should know that short-term fixes are not effective. The key is to provide consistency over the long haul. This involves communicating the vision and values and what is expected of everyone, respecting employees’ contributions — and standing by your word until it’s done.

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