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How to Succeed During Stressful Times While Others Struggle

We have all seen the global pandemic wreak havoc in so many aspects of our lives.

We all are concerned with the health of our friends and family, our financial well-being, our jobs and/or income streams, our quality of life, our community, our country, and the world as a whole.

For those in the midst of your professional careers, if you are fortunate enough to still be employed, it is all-too-easy to let fear creep into your life and to rule your thinking and behavior, sometimes to the detriment of your employer.

Throughout my white-collar career, I can think of similar times when the situation was so serious that I began to let fear rule, and to question if I should change careers, or to leave my employer out of concern that they would not survive. The great recession of 2008 was one of those times.

During that year, while working for a very successful and stable global company, I watched as our revenue fell by 40% in 12 months, and saw a series of good customers fall by the wayside and declare bankruptcy. Suddenly, senior leader discussions began to focus upon cash-flow, which is the life blood of any company. Prior to that time, cash flow was important, but growth, earnings, and shareholder value tended to drive the agendas of senior management financial discussions.

Given the sudden change in the environment, and the change in volume, it was easy to let your imagination run away with you, and to imagine the worst. If we lost 40% of our sales, would that mean that we would have to lay off 40% of our employees? What if my employer declared bankruptcy? How would I support my family? What would happen to my 401K? If there were layoffs, would I be one of the ones to go?

There is a proverb you may have heard, and most attribute it to Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969), the father of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I think this is a wonderful saying, although one probably overused!

Basically, what employers need more than anything else during volatile, highly stressful and threatening times, are calm leaders and managers who anticipate the coming issues and start to make plans to address those issues early and logically. The best leaders and managers put their personal concerns low in the priority stack.

Let’s say you hold a middle management role in a services company, and your role is to manage receivables of your customers, basically to ensure that the company collects cash from customers on a timely and consistent basis. During stressful times, fear can drive you to think about your own issues only. Perhaps that fear drives you to ask your supervisor or other leaders questions that show that you are concerned for you and your issues. For instance, you might stop your boss in the hallway, and ask – “If Covid-19 causes our customers to shut down and experience cash flow problems, and they are late paying invoices, and we experience cash flow problems, how sure are you that my pay and benefits will continue?”

Of course, your boss would have no quick answer to that question, other than “I am not sure, it would depend.”

But what if instead, you set aside your concerns and focused upon how to anticipate what might occur and to look out for your employer and your employees as a priority?

So this time, you stop your boss in the hallway, and say – “I have been thinking about both our customers and our employees in customer receivables, and I have begun to create some scenarios of what might occur, and accompanying models to project our cash flow and receivable levels over the next quarter. I am concluding that it will be critical to retain our best customer service reps during this time, in order to maximize our receipts as our customers begin to struggle. I have some thoughts about how we can communicate with our employees about this to retain our best, and to better ensure their safety whether they are onsite here or at home, and to offer some new programs to customers to help them manage through these trying times. Would you like to see some of the modelling I have done? If you like, I can invite the manager of human resources to sit in.

Notice the very different tone in the second discussion versus the first. Consider what your boss might think after hearing you discuss the second example versus the first. Here are some of the thoughts that might cross his/her mind as you explain your ideas. “Wow, I had not even had time to think about potential problems with our customer payments, this needs to be on my radar.” “I am glad that my manager is thinking ahead and taking ownership of this problem, since I have other problems that I need to focus upon.” “This is an important issue, not only for this customer receivables team, but for other critical departments that can help us manage through these cash flow issues. I am glad we had this discussion, and I want to hear more. My boss might want to hear our ideas also.”

In the second discussion, you demonstrated that you properly anticipated an upcoming issue, and have worked independently to develop some solutions. You also demonstrated that you are a leader, and are concerned about the company more than yourself.

In the first discussion, you only created a distraction for your boss, and demonstrated, through your question, that you are most concerned about yourself.

It is human nature during very challenging times to become inwardly focused and concerned about yourself and those who depend upon you. I would say that in my experience, most people focus upon themselves and their personal concerns during these times, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, during volatile times, employers value those most who stay calm, anticipate issues to come, and work independently (for a while, anyway) to develop some options and solutions for further discussion.

There is a quote I remember, that is so true during these times. It goes something like this:

“The best thing about the worst time in your life is that you get to see the true colors of everyone near you.”

Careers can be made, or broken, based upon how you respond to those ‘worst times of your life’. Make sure you show your best true colors!

Parts of this article were excerpted from several chapters in my new book “Changing Collars: Lessons in Transitioning from Blue-Collar Roots to White-Collar Success”.

(Daniel Muller is a business executive, expert on white-collar culture and soft skills, and author. To learn more, to contact him, to purchase the book, or to sign-up to his subscriber list, visit his website.)

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This best-selling book has hit #1 on his publisher's website in non-fiction. He has spoken to corporations, professional groups, students and clubs about this and other business topics, and is available for podcasts, consultations, seminars, and speaking engagements, including corporate training programs.


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