Leading in adversity. Your toughest test yet

Trust me on this. You have never had a test of your leadership until you have managed a recruitment business through a recession.

It’s beyond tough. Balancing falling revenues while trying to retain key staff. Communicating critical fee generation targets while at the same time not “spooking” the troops and leaving people depressed and panicky. And then there is the myriad of decisions about cost control, pricing levels, and strategy.

Really, who would want to be running a staffing business right now?

But we cannot hide. We have to deal. And we have to think both short and long term Survival is key obviously, but so is preparing for the upturn. And it all hinges on leadership and the tone of that leadership.

In my experience there are three key areas you need to focus on to lead successfully in tough times

· Narrow the Focus

Desperation in bad times can lead to losing focus. At Aquent we believe in specialisation and we believe that carving out a series of niches gives us power in the good times, and is highly defensive in the bad. Our mantra at Aquent is “we are a mile deep and an inch wide”. And I believe it’s going to be a key advantage for us over the next year or two.

Winners in a downturn narrow their business portfolios. Do not try to become all things to all people. You must walk away from bad business. Allow losers to chase unprofitable sales in an attempt to hold market share. As a leader you must encourage the business to focus on just a few critical priorities that you know will drive revenue.

That could be a number of things, but it may be as simple as i) Grow temp sales in a targeted niche, ii) 70% of our time must be on face to face or on verbal customer contact and, iii) we only work on qualified job orders. These are clear business priorities. They give your team focus. And that is what leadership must ensure during a downturn.

· Bring People Together

When the pressure is on, its often true that recruiters become defensive and territorial. Maybe your teams even start seeing internal colleagues as threats. And when that happens they take their eye off the real threat – competitors taking our business and customers drifting away.

Leaders have to stop this self-destructive behavior from catching on. Firstly it’s important you spend as much time with your staff, ‘on the job’. Running job meetings, taking training sessions, going on client visits. Don’t lock yourself in your office. Be more visible, not less visible

But you must do more. You need to actively encourage people to work together. That could include joint meetings of temp and perm teams to share ideas for example. It could mean encouraging people from different teams to go on joint visits. Or you could get a real “gun” recruiter from one part of the business to share her success ideas with those from another. Small steps, but important ones to keep people aligned with the common goal. Winning business

· Staff engagement – nothing is more important

Its crucial that during challenging times, you open up a dialogue about what is happening with people in your teams. Don’t leave them in the dark. Lack of information promotes uncertainty and takes focus off the job at hand. As you go about making change, you need to make sure that people understand the decisions you are making and the reasons for them.

I am pretty sure we are not perfect at Aquent on internal communications, but I am equally positive that we really try to keep the dialogue going at all levels. Some of the things we have stepped up during these trying times include periodic emails to all staff on how the business is performing, monthly newsletters highlighting successes and wins no matter how small, increased training on specific ‘recession’ tactics, and regular monthly ‘Fireside’ chats where the CEO will talk on teleconference to the entire company about current events and strategies.

Small things I grant you. But better than silence or continual bad news

Some of the managers in our business have taken things even further. Trivia nights are a regular feature in Sydney office, and on several occasions the management team have come in and cooked lunch for all the staff!

Its not going to win more business, but it breaks the tedium of a tough market and brings everyone into the fold.

At the very least, it provides us all with a healthy laugh… and that simply cannot be bad!

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