Pushing Through Adversity: Leadership Tactics for Engineers

The role of a leader is never more important than when an organization is experiencing difficult times.

Even the most successful companies can face challenging times. Responding appropriately, minimizing the negative impact and guiding the company effectively through the obstacles are the mark of an exceptional leader.

Confidence, connection and vision
The actions and traits of great leaders set the stage for success for the entire organization. Especially in times of change, your staff will take their cues from how you appear and act. If you project an image of extreme calm, it will demonstrate that you are confident and optimistic despite the challenges, helping your employees focus on the tasks at hand rather than spending time worrying. Engage with them individually and be prepared to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” By knowing the aspirations of your employees, you can map them against the journey that you are to undertake, and determine how they fit in.

Your vision is your strength right now, so communicate it to someone every day to ensure that you’re remaining focused and bringing others onboard. Ensure that you can present your vision in “elevator speech” mode, to ensure that it’s easy to comprehend, even by the newest employee. Break down your vision into milestones and celebrate the success of each one. Don’t wait for the big success - your journey may undergo changes in course, and not celebrating small victories will lead to lack of confidence and possible loss of momentum.

You also need to make sure your customers are in sync. Meet with them and help them see your vision so that it resonates with them. The highest form of success is if they make it their vision as well, because that’s the easiest way to make change happen.

Channeling emotion into energy
The need to project a calm, confident image doesn’t mean that emotions can’t run high. And we all know high stress is not going to go away in our global, productivity-oriented work environments.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the key to managing emotions is by focusing on others first. As a leader, your first job is to understand where you want the team to be after the change process. If the team is in a better place, there is a good chance you will be as well.

Prioritize your private life as well as your professional life. Don’t neglect activities outside work that you really like, such as music, movies or running. Devote time to that activity during the week. Meeting friends outside work is a huge stress buster, providing a clean break between your workday and your relaxation time.

Specific steps to keep employees engaged
There are ways to ensure that your employees stay inspired and hopeful during significant change, but it takes work and consistency. Your day-to-day efforts will depend on the structure of your direct reports. You’ll need a communication rhythm with your direct reports that you optimally already have in place. Schedule regular conference calls and meetings with your entire team, keeping them in the loop on the challenges and successes that have occurred. Talk about upcoming challenges as well. And at least once a year, meet face to face as a team.
Reward positive and useful actions instantly, setting an example you want others to follow. And make sure the successes your company experiences are shared among people in the organization who are helping move the process forward. Can you provide them with better assignments, additional responsibilities or more compensation?

Lead like a shepherd
A good rule of thumb is to manage tasks, but lead people. Because people are emotional by nature, the key is to direct the emotions in a positive direction with inspiration and motivation. In times when you don’t know the outcome of what you are trying to build, leadership takes an even more crucial role. People are skeptical of where they are going and they need to be led. But lead like a shepherd – be at the back of the pack, not in front. When you’ve conveyed your vision of the outcome and they’ve signed on, they will go in the direction you’ve set out. Well-defined metrics are especially important in times of certainty and uncertainty. Provide targets and milestones, monitor progress and take corrective action if necessary.

There are characteristics of leadership that, when established during boom times, can help in times of rapid shifts.

  • Be authentic and genuine
  • Communicate frequently – email, voicemail, conference call, video conference, even pre-recorded videos
  • Meet with people regularly
  • Be empathetic
  • Be calm, don’t make knee-jerk reactions
  • Monitor situations and take charge

The impact of poor leadership during change can be disastrous. Here’s a situation I witnessed in a previous job:

A new CEO was hired. He implied that current staff members were incompetent and wanted to hire all new leaders from the outside. He ushered in too much change at once. Employee morale was shattered and productivity plummeted. The organization lost huge momentum and the CEO was forced to resign two years later.

What I learned from that experience is that employees on their own don’t aspire to poor performance. They had been successful under previous leadership and helped the company become what it was. The new leader should have inspired the existing team first; if there was a problem with acceptance of his vision from a few corners, it then would have been appropriate for him to bring in people from the outside. If this CEO was the best in the industry, he would have coached the new team he inherited. Amazing things happen with inspired employees and people who are fired up.

Everybody needs to be led – even if you are the CEO, you need leadership guidance from the chairman, board or even an executive coach. Sometimes leadership inspiration comes from situations completely outside of work, such as parenting. Inspiration coupled with empathy works better than empathy alone.

It will generally occur that someone on your team will manage more than lead and others may have to lead more than manage. If that balance of work is established on the team, you will achieve the best results. If you need to turn around a business and bring it back to previous levels of efficiency or greatness, you need more management. However, if you are in uncharted territory like establishing a new business model, you will need more vision, inspiration, motivation and core values.

Staying on top in a changing world
There’s an acronym that describes our world today: VUCA, which refers to volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It demonstrates all the reasons creative leaders are needed now more than ever.

The way a company manages through change can be a make or break situation. At EASi, we’ve developed a specialty in leadership and service solutions that can provide the extra support needed to guide a company through the adversity and to success on the other side. Our experience in ushering companies through change of all kinds makes us the kind of partner you want on your side in this VUCA world.