How to keep your cool when everyone around is losing theirs

Budget cuts. Layoffs. Doing more with less. Sound familiar?

CIOs are suddenly tasked by management with putting out fires on multiple fronts as businesses struggle to survive amid the economy’s smoking ruins.

Oh, and don’t forget little things like keeping the network up and the servers from crashing.

The mounting responsibilities and demands from C-level execs can be both personally distracting and professionally discouraging for some IT leaders, and CIOs are not alone.

Statistics show stress is wreaking havoc in North American companies – adversely affecting employee productivity and corporate profits.

Psychological disorders are the main cause of short-term and long-term disability claims in Canadian companies, according to the Watson Wyatt Canadian Staying @ Work Survey.

The annual cost to Canadian companies from stress-related disorders is $12 billion, according to Statistics Canada. It estimates that absenteeism due to stress has increased by over 300 per cent since 1995.

In the U.S. work-related worries jumped from 62 per cent to 67 per cent between April and October 2008, according to the American Psychological Association.

Yet now, more than ever, “focus is the name of the game,” says Susan Cramm, founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm specializing in IT leadership, “especially when people and money are tight.”

But finding your office Zen isn’t easy these days. Drawing on past experiences, here’s how some current and former CIOs have maintained focus in their role and within their department during a crisis.

“After the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, business was struggling and the workplace was pretty tense,” recalls Les Duncan, then senior vice president and CIO at Joann Stores (he retired as Atmos Energy’s VP and CIO in 2006).

To ease staff concerns, Duncan held regular meetings where he spoke directly about business conditions and highlighted the issues for that week or month.

His staff knew how the company planned to weather the difficult times so they could focus on their work, he says.

“This [transparency] also helped me to stay focused on what was really important-the success or failure of the business during hard times.”

CIOs can be sucked into the mind-set of looming layoffs and project cancellations, just like any employee, says Direct Energy CIO Kumud Kalia.

His method to combat this: Make time for you. “Spending time with my family is a good antidote for me-taking the kids to hockey, skiing with them, taking them to movies or playing on the Wii,” he says.

Duncan says he used to schedule time to walk or “play a good round of golf” to decompress.

Another method Duncan used to combat tense times is simple, yet effective: Get busy and stay busy. “I’ve worked at businesses where large numbers of employees were cut from the payroll,” he says.

“Most employees ran around huddling in small groups talking about the latest rumour, but my group and I were so busy and focused on delivering that we didn’t have time to do that.”

Cramm, Duncan and Kalia agree that positivity and flexibility is essential in staying on target at work.

“Anticipate changes by checking in frequently with business decision makers and playing offense by killing projects that are going nowhere,” advises Cramm.

Kalia tries to see opportunity in any major change. “It’s a good time to offer assistance to colleagues and take on tasks that might normally be outside the CIO scope,” he says.

“This is not the time to hide in an IT silo, but the ideal time to step out of it” by creating space to innovate, which costs little and can result in growth.

Duncan, who has survived four brain hemorrhages and two brain surgeries, says that now, as in any crisis, “You’ve got to be able to look forward to better times.”

Steps to get you started

Here are very specific tips on how to break through stress lead effectively in these difficult times.

First, understand that you’re not alone. Many companies and their leaders are learning to deal with these stressful times. Be sure to tap into that experience.

Second, smooth seas never made a good sailor – difficult times test a leader’s true mettle. View these rough waters as a chance to expand your leadership skills for an environment that may prevail for some time. Here are some guideposts to follow.

Wear Two Hats

Now more than ever it is necessary to wear two hats – your business leader hat and your personal hat.

This will enable you to separate yourself and your own concerns from your role as leader. Clearly there will be actions, events and circumstances that will be upsetting to you personally.

Discipline yourself to deal with them privately. Publicly showing your distress will spread that anxiety throughout your organization. Your role as leader is to provide a productive environment, as free from stress as possible, even under difficult conditions.

Be Visible

In this environment, confidentiality is difficult to maintain. Rumors will run rampant. Every action, word or look takes on meaning for someone.

Interpretations will sometimes border on the bizarre. Yet it is especially vital that you be visible to the whole organization during this time.

Maintain a calm exterior and communicate often. Walk the halls, talk to people in their offices, eat lunch in the company dining room. Consider using a “hotline” to respond to frequently asked questions.

Stick to the Facts

Be as honest as you can with your people. Don’t try to hide the business conditions. Tell it to them straight. Let them know about the plans for improving conditions.

Employees need the information that will enable them to understand the potential impact on their lives.

Without facts, people will speculate scenarios that are generally worse than the actual conditions. The effect on productivity can be devastating.

Know How to Let Go

Cutbacks, downsizing, rightsizing, restructuring. Lots of words are used to try to ease the sting of layoffs.

It seems almost inevitable these days that you will be faced with having to implement a plan to reduce the size of your organization.

This may be the most difficult action you will have to take. How you execute it will have a big impact not just on those who must leave the organization but also on those who stay. From experience I have culled a few lessons that may be helpful.

  • Pick the time as carefully as you can. Avoid Fridays and holidays. For three years in a row, one company I worked for spent months on the analysis and organizational details of the layoffs and announced them to individuals just before the holidays in December. Bad move. The individual layoffs were devastating enough, but the erosion of employee loyalty and productivity that resulted was even more severe.
  • Make skill the prime criterion. Keep as many of the critical skills as possible. When there are fewer people, everyone needs to be able to pull their own weight, and then some. Protecting your friends will not help get the work done.
  • Be flexible. Be empathetic to individuals’ needs as often as you can. When faced with shutting down a business, I needed some key employees to stay long enough to fulfill the remaining contracts. We were able to negotiate a unique package for each person that addressed her needs specifically. They all stayed to the end, and we parted with good feelings. At our farewell party we awarded purple ribbons to everyone. Sometimes hokey is OK!

Reward Survivors

We used to have a saying in the oil business: “When things are going up, everyone looks up; when things are going down, everyone looks down.” This is probably a good description of morale in a company facing hard times.

Work doggedly to improve morale. Those who remain will feel like survivors. They will be overworked as they meet the challenges of doing the work of their departed colleagues.

Make sure you communicate. Spend a disproportionate amount of time in the presence of your employees. Listen and respond to their ideas.

Pay as well as you can. Find non-monetary rewards to express your appreciation for their efforts.

Help them prepare for the future. By offering suggestions for the new opportunities that will arise when prosperity returns, you’ll help build the optimism they need to recover.

Focus on Essentials

Rally the organization around some doable business goals. Keep people focused on the here and now of your organization’s mission. Do the best job possible. This is your company.

Survival depends on your efforts. Be creative to find ways to do more with less. Changes to business processes and the use of technology and IT’s expertise are crucial now, so you have a real chance to make an impact.

Don’t Forget Yourself

Portraying a calm, positive outlook will take real effort some days. Take care of yourself physically and mentally.

Find ways to have fun, on and off the job. This is exhausting work. Your job may be at risk. Think through the stay/leave scenario. If you stay, use this period to prepare for the future. Develop new skills, try new technologies, build new relationships.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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