Thriving in Tough Times
Ask Yourself: What Are the Most Important Questions I Should Answer to Drive Success?

By Holly G. Green

2009 is now nearly half over. It promises to continue to be an exciting ride filled with more uncertainty and higher expectations than ever before. And despite the doom and gloom consuming a lot of the space around us, you can focus and succeed even in the toughest of times. After all, a lot of people and companies have done it over the years. Just think about GE, which launched during the panic of 1873, or Xerox, which conceived of and worked on its first machine during the Great Depression. Hewlett Packard got its start in 1939. And, what would we do without Tupperware®, which also started during the Depression? Microsoft began in 1975, a tough year for most. IBM has been through numerous ups and downs, written off by many several times but thriving today.

On the flip side, companies go out of business every year. Restaurants fail, start-ups run out of capital, bankruptcies get filed, and on and on it goes.

The one sure thing about 2009 is that we will get through it and we will recover. The recovery may not look like the successes of the past. Who knows what it will look like exactly? With all of the forces at work, what can you do to influence your success most directly? Pause. Despite everything in you and around you screaming at you to run, run, run, slow down just a little to consider where and what to focus on.

Following are some of the key questions to ponder to help you and your clients determine where and how to spend your energy and other resources.

  1. What is going on in my sector or industry, with my competitors, with my clients?
  2. What is possible with my products, services, or clients currently and in the coming months?
  3. Considering this information, why do we exist? What is the reason for our company or our team?

Think about your value to your key stakeholders. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that you understand the value you bring to customers or clients and that they are clear on the value they bring to others. What do they expect from you and are they getting it? Also consider other stakeholders such as employees, suppliers, shareholders, etc. Get clear on what's in it for them when they engage with you or your product and make sure you deliver consistently.

Determine your destination. Where are you going in the next 12 months? What does it look like when you get there? Define excellence and make sure it is clear to everyone involved. This includes important elements beyond your finances. Many companies state their goals in exclusively financial terms—revenue, margin, etc. But by themselves, these measures mean very little to most employees. Supplement your operating goals with clarity on other elements of your destination, including the skills, knowledge, and abilities you want in the organization; the organizational structures, processes, and programs that will serve you best; the necessary tools, systems, and technologies; the products in market and in development; who your customers will be and how many you will have; who your competitors will be and what types of companies you will be competing against; how you will be known and what your brand will represent; and what culture will exist, including the attitudes and beliefs of everyone involved.

"Draw" this picture and communicate it constantly. You will be amazed at how others will respond and align when there is a clear definition of where you are going.

After you are clear on where you are going, compare it to current reality. Where are the gaps that have to be addressed? This gives you the information you need to plan and execute.

Once you have paused and pondered the above, you should have good insight into where to focus your energies and resources. These become your strategies. If you have more than five areas of focus or strategies, you have none! Push yourself to narrow and be optimistically realistic on what you can get done with the resources you have or will have. Today, one of the toughest decisions can be deciding what not to do. We live in a world filled with opportunity and possibility, but to be a successful leader or manager, you have to perform like a laser—narrowing the energy to achieve the greatest result.

Then the tough part really begins. After you have spent the time answering the above questions, you have to act. Execution is one of the greatest challenges facing leaders and managers today. Get all the information about your destination in front of you and your employees. Keep it visible. Carve out time to make progress on it every day. Don't let the noise around you take you off track.

Focus and resolve make all the difference. They almost always have.

Holly G. Green is a consultant, author, and speaker. She is CEO of The Human Factor, Inc. and author of More Than a Minute, How to Be an Effective Leader and Manager in Today's Changing World (Career Press, 2008). Contact Holly.

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