Monday, June 22, 2009

Future Perfect

The other day a colleague of ours reminded us about another thing we know is true: expectation is an orphan dimension of management thinking. We were discussing her job and she was saying that, although she really enjoyed her first two years with the company, “Start up mode can only last so long.” We knew exactly what she meant.

When we think of startup mode, what comes to mind are shoestring budgets, scrambling for resources, inventing things as one goes along and uncertainty about the future. But the passion for a shared vision, feelings of being close to the heart of the enterprise and its founder(s) and the excitement of being in on the ground floor of a burgeoning enterprise keeps things together and inspires people to make sacrifices.

Hope for the future is the lifeblood of the start-up. But even in the throes of the start-up honeymoon, as our colleague pointed out, hope cannot be sustained forever without visible signs of progress. If hope is what inspires people to make sacrifices in the present, how can organizations operating in lockdown mode in response to the recession get employees on board? In the face of hiring freezes, salary freezes and cookie freezes (one of our clients has banned the ordering of snacks to accompany meetings) how does a manager frame positive expectations for what’s ahead?

Clearly what’s present in a start-up that is not in most workplace situations today is a sense that there might be a future payout for everyone making the requisite sacrifices. Startups are about building. Organizations that are laying off and retrenching are about loss. It’s a bit like the difference between childcare and eldercare: we know that daily care for our children will get easier while caring for our aging parents will only get more difficult. In one scenario we invest our energies because we have hope; in the other we have only the expectation of loss.

HirschHills advice: Leaders can no longer rely on the guaranteed growth of their organizations to be the wind under their managerial wings. Their employees will not be excited and engaged by the expanding array of new jobs and incentives that characterize times of growth. The responsibility for cultivating employee loyalty and engagement now rests squarely on the shoulders of organizational leaders at all levels. Management by wandering around is out; deliberate management itineraries---including a plan for connecting with every employee to engage and inspire each—is in. Smart leaders will leverage some of the elements of a successful start-up environment: Try to touch everyone; give employees access to you. Ask for input in ways that encourage creative responses; let people in on your thinking while it is still evolving. This openness will be reassuring and will result in your people taking resourceful and innovative approaches to the challenges of today’s workplace. And the sense of inclusion you foster will spur employees to pitch in and work hard to regain a sense of hope and future.

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