Article from Business Times, 4 February 2017

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What it takes to be a good boss in bad times

Leaders who successfully lead their teams through rough waters will be better positioned to ride on the waves of economic recovery

Saturday, February 4, 2017 - 05:50

By Vivien Shiao



AS quickly as the last square of bak kwa has vanished in one's mouth, so has reality set in after an extended holiday season.

Even during the festivities, there was a heaviness in the mood that had nothing to do with overeating. You know times are bad when the topic of jobs and wages takes precedence over one's marital status during Chinese New Year visiting.

One uncle said that he is just waiting to get retrenched as his company shifts its entire manufacturing base offshore; one has been on a job search for the past few months; another asked me if SPH is letting go of any more staff. Cheery subjects. The phrase "no job is safe" never really hits home until either you or people you know are affected by it.

But in the midst of all this uncertainty where employees fret for their livelihoods, managers have the capacity, and some say the duty, to do something about it.

Contrary to what some may think, it's not about false bravado or putting up a front. Andrew Calvert, managing director, Asia-Pacific, AchieveForum says: "The important thing to keep in mind is that the employees are not stupid. They know what's going on in the wider market. If you put a false, cheerful face on things, it will backfire on you. Treat them like adults - don't overly dramatise it, but don't underplay it either."

He adds that managers must be as transparent as possible, and share as many facts and data as they can.

"If you are in management, you are fooling yourself if you think you don't have to deal with difficult conversations. The role of the leader is to get people focused on the future, not on the past. You have to remain positive without being Pollyanna."

There is a tendency for bosses to keep things under wraps and not rock the boat, but if you are not providing the information, you can be sure your team is getting it somewhere else and the effects can be damaging.

Andrew How, managing director of Korn Ferry Hay Group Singapore, points out: "It's not like the downturn just happened last month. It's been in the news for the past year or so. Are managers providing enough updates? Are they being straight with staff?"

Annual townhall sessions are well and good, but it is not enough. Managers ought to be addressing their respective departments, or even one-on-one if the team is seriously affected.

This gives staff the opportunity to voice their fears and concerns, as well as giving them a sense of involvement.

Mr How observes that there are many leaders out there who look at issues from only a financial perspective.

But a real leader, he says, goes beyond being able to crunch numbers.

"They have more 'mature egos', meaning they are cool, diplomatic, and understand the complexity of the situation from a variety of angles instead of looking at it from one-dimensional perspective of cost-cutting."

This person must provide clarity, engage the team and empathise with them.

Companies which fail to display compassion will find themselves in a deeper pit than they first found themselves in. Take the Surbana Jurong debacle for example. The company recently dismissed 54 staff for "poor performance", and later admitted in a statement that the process "could have been better managed".

Not following due process aside, its group chief executive officer Wong Heang Fine had informed his employees via a strongly-worded e-mail that the company could not allow a small number of poor performers to affect the rest of the staff. I don't know if this is meant as an encouragement or a warning to the remaining employees, but it certainly drew strong responses from the public.

Paul Heng, founder and managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group, says: "On the impacted employee's part, it could potentially hinder his or her chance of finding alternative employment. Give such folks a break - they may well need to put food on the table."

It is certainly a leader's job to be firm and make hard decisions, but it doesn't mean that they have to be callous.

He pointed out that under-performance could sometimes be the outcome of poor supervision, and this could lead to feelings of unfairness and incompetent leadership among staff left behind. Often, leaders fail to realise that the real impact is not just felt by people who lost their jobs, but the people who remain.

They are left with the anxiety of waiting for the axe to fall, even as they grapple with the additional workload from departed staff.

Mr How says bluntly: "When this happens, your best people are the first ones looking out. And more likely than not, your best talent are the first ones who secure jobs elsewhere."

In such times, staff are watching the moves of management very closely. If management cannot provide a clear direction on where the company is going or provide support for struggling staff, employees will take it as a signal that it's time to leave.

Bosses who think it's mollycoddling of staff need to remember that loyalty is a two-way street. Tough times indeed come and go, but if management makes the effort to invest in staff and help them see the big picture, it pays off in the long run.

For example, during the 2008 financial crisis, Mr How noted that firms which spent more time with people rather than numbers were able to bounce back much more quickly when the economy recovered.

"They spent 2009 and 2010 making sure that they retained the talent that they have, consolidating operations, so when the economy took off in 2011, they were well ahead of the curve unlike other companies, which were just starting to hire."

Leaders must also emphasise on the need to constantly futureproof their workforce in these rapidly changing times.

Mr Heng says: "Encourage staff on the need to continually upskill, reskill and acquire new knowledge to enhance their employability - this is a 'must do', during good times or bad."

But again, leaders must be sensitive to what's happening. The platform or timing has to be apt so that it is not perceived by employees as negative or as "the writing on the wall".

Ultimately, sound leadership all comes down to consistency. Rallying the troops is not a one-time affair; it takes years to build rapport and trust with your staff.

If your lines of communication open only during negative events such as paycuts or restructuring, don't expect it to be easy to influence the hearts and minds of your team.


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