Have Courage-Do This One Magical Thing For Your Business And Your Life

One of our leaders took what many would say was a big risk last week. He asked us to an ‘urgent’ meeting, where he then outlined why his business was in ‘deep trouble’.  We left the meeting delighted. Huh? How can that be? Bad news and we were thrilled? Here’s why. It’s a powerful message for business, and for life- if you’ve got the courage.

Actually, as CEO Mike and I walked across town to our next meeting, we concluded this business was NOT in deep trouble. It was underpinned with strength and vitality, with great people and deep specialization. But it had simply drifted away from its ‘heartland’, from what it did best. By playing again to its strengths, it would thrive.

What excited us most about the meeting was the pace of progress made in the discussion. This was made possible by all in the room doing one very simple thing. It’s very hard to do, but if you form the habit, is incredibly refreshing and invigorating. Here it is.

Face Reality- Always!

Iconic General Electric CEO of yesteryear, Jack Welch, was passionate about ‘facing reality’. He drove this habit through the way he ran his businesses, and the culture he built.

Face reality. Look hard at a situation and see what is really there. And then tell the truth.

It is human nature to gloss over bad news. We all do it. Steve Jobs apparently was a master at it: if he did not like a reality he, according to those who knew him, “just put it out of his mind and ignored it.” But of course, the reality does not go away. Margaret Heffernan calls it ‘willful blindness’- why we ignore the obvious at our peril.

Here are three critical tips of making ‘facing reality’ a habit you and your business can embrace:

1. Celebrate and Share Your Stuff Ups
“Executives must be able to advocate for the truth”, says Paul Gibson from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Create a culture where sharing failure – being open and frank- is real. I have always shared my stuff ups, taking valuable lessons from them. My Possums post on the biggest cock-up I ever made in business was published on Australian advertising blog Mumbrella and got a lot of (not all positive) feedback. Mumbrella made it a topic at its recent major conference in Sydney. It was great to see many industry leaders sharing stuff ups.

2. Reward Outstanding Management of Failure
Reward staff on their ability to identify and manage issues or failure. The reality of business means we will lose clients and get things wrong. The tsunami of change underway too means businesses must recalibrate (‘change engines mid-flight’). Things will go wrong. Strategy will be off track. Reward the ability to see that, and the courage to face it, address it, make further change. Successful businesses also accept to take a risk you have to be prepared to make a mistake.

3. “Retreat Slowly”
The biggest mistake I made with bosses of old was to ‘face reality’, and then present a ‘new financial forecast’ that showed a big decline. That’s not helpful. And 99% of the time not necessary. CEO Mike shared the ‘retreat slowly’ insight with me. Always face reality, see the problems, and then work hard at addressing them while protecting financial performance, and minimizing decline. This might mean slowing down another initiative, delaying hires, postponing discretionary spend, or driving hard for extra revenues elsewhere. Point is- we need to face reality, and also must then take hard decisions fast to protect our commitments to our ‘owners’, and to ourselves.

So- Face Reality. Look hard at a situation and see what is really there. And then tell the truth.

This needs courage. You won’t always be popular. As I say when ‘facing reality’ that is not welcomed…”Just because we don’t like it does not mean it is not true.” And then take action fast and decisively. And- RETREAT SLOWLY.

Postcript One

Here’s a very funny and short story, stolen from Tom Moult, who stole it from Jon Steel, who stole it from Jeremy Bullmore. Jeremy was apparently traveling on a Canadian Airways flight. On landing, the aircraft slammed down on to the runway with a terrible bang. Quite reasonably, the passengers waited the explanation from the captain. What they heard was: “This is Captain Johnson speaking. I’ve been flying with Canadian for over thirty years, and that was the worst fucking landing I’ve ever made!”

Here’s the surprise: the captain was suddenly a hero. As the passengers left the plane, they all wanted to shake his hand; they probably wanted to fly with him again. Why? Because in a world of squirrelly explanations, he’d been disarmingly honest.

Postcript Two

I am an overweight, bald, middle age egomaniac rapidly going to seed. Message to self: Take action- fast!!!

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14 Responses to Have Courage-Do This One Magical Thing For Your Business And Your Life

  1. Sue Meehan - The White Agency June 27, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Great post Chris. I’m a big believer in the ‘good, bad, no surprises’ approach in communicating to management or your team. Clients appreciate it too.

    My recent adoption of eating the frog (thanks to your white agency address a few weeks ago) is a great adjunct to that. It’s continually proving that facing the tricky conversations or difficult decisions are often not as bad as they seem.

    • Chris Savage June 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

      Thanks Sue!

  2. Richard Sauerman (@the_brand_guy) June 27, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    Loving this post. Especially the Canadian Airways pilot. 🙂

    • Chris Savage June 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

      Thanks Richard- appreciated

  3. Bruce June 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    Chris, once again on the mark. I’m in sydney next week fancy a coffee? Bruce

    • Chris Savage June 27, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Thanks Bruce- can’t next week…I am in Jo’burg speaking at a big conference there. Travel safe. Chris

  4. Stella June 27, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    Very good post as always. Post script two made me LOL so hard I spit out my coffee! Be kinder to yourself – you’re not that overweight…

    • Chris Savage June 27, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Hmmmm… not sure you were endorsing enough. Also- you haven’t seen me for a year so how can you tell? xxx

  5. Martin Palin June 27, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Below are the first 3 stages of corporate failure, according to Jim Collins’ book “How the mighty fall”.

    • Stage 1: Hubris born of success
    • Stage 2: Undisciplined pursuit of more
    • Stage 3: Denial of risk and peril

    All very relevant in light of Chris’s post about our natural tendency to gloss over bad news. Well done Chris.

    • Chris Savage June 27, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks Martin- great points which I will now steal and use as my own!

  6. AD June 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Great post Chris.

    You would think with events like Gallipoli Australians would be all for celebrating both great victories and our great stuff ups. However I believe all too often we see failure as mistakes rather than great learning experiences.

  7. Anne Miles June 28, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    ‘There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback’ (Not sure who said it!) Great post, Chris.

  8. Colleen Rose June 30, 2012 at 12:26 am #

    Such an important message Chris – your blog is so thought provoking and, more importantly, makes me think about myself and how I behave. Thanks for that. We are looking forward to seeing you in South Africa next week

    • Chris Savage July 3, 2012 at 9:55 am #

      Thanks Colleen. Appreciate it. See you on Tuesday. Chris

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