It is a great challenge to look at uncertainty in the eye and respond with love instead of fear, but if one does so, anything becomes possible.
The stories found below have helped bring perspective to the decisions I am facing now as a business owner, I hope that they can help you too.
STORY # 1: Excerpt from Reinventing Organizations, by Frederic Laloux
“No one would call Jean-Francois Zobrist, a bear of a man and former paratrooper, a softie. But when he was faced with difficult and critical decisions at FAVI, he readily admitted he needed help to find a good answer. More than once, on impulse, he went around the shop floor, asked everybody to stop the machines, climbed on a soapbox and shared his problem with all the employees, trying to figure out a course of action. The first major crisis under his leadership happened in 1990 when car orders plummeted in the wake of the First Gulf War. Stocks were piling up, and there simply wasn’t enough work to keep workers busy. Capacity and costs needed to be reduced. There was one obvious solution: fire the temp workers. But at FAVI, no one was really considered a temp worker. For reasons related to labor laws in France, new recruits were hired as temp workers for 18 months before they were offered a full contract. Most of them were already considered full members of their teams. By firing the temps, FAVI would rescind its moral commitment to them, and it would lose talent it had invested in, with a recovery perhaps only a few months away. With many questions and no clear answers, Zobrist found himself on the soapbox and shared his dilemma with all employees in that shift (including the temp workers whose fate was being discussed). People in the audience shouted questions and proposals. One worker said, “This month, why don’t we all work only three weeks and get three weeks’ pay, and keep the temp workers? If we need to, we will do the same thing next month as well.” Heads nodded, and the proposal was put to a vote. To Zobrist’s surprise, there was unanimous agreement. Workers just agreed to a temporary 25 percent salary cut. In less than an hour, the problem was solved and machine noise reverberated around the factory again.
“Most leaders I know would consider Zobrist’s approach extremely risky. Sharing their dilemma openly with everybody would make them feel so vulnerable that this course of action probably wouldn’t even cross their mind. Indeed, no one could have predicted with certainty how employees would react to the news that their jobs were on the line. The gathering could have descended into chaos, with fear of layoffs pitting people against each other in heated exchanges. Zobrist had no preconceived idea, no script, for how to lead the discussion once he had shared the company’s problem. He chose to trust – trust himself, trust employees, and trust the process.”
“Obviously, the safer option would have been to ask the head of human resources (HR) to discreetly work out a number of scenarios, confidentially convene the management team to discuss them, and hide the problem from the workers until a decision was ready to be announced. (In the case of FAVI, of course, Zobrist didn’t’ have an HR director nor an executive team at hand, but he could have convened a few trusted advisors.) This method is the tried-and-true way leaders have learned to handle sensitive issues in organizations. Whether they realize it or not, this approach is driven by leader’s fear: fear that employees might not be able to handle the difficult news; fear that the leader’s legitimacy might be questioned if he didn’t call the shots; and fear that he might look like a fool if he discussed a problem before he has figured out a solution. Zobrist’s ability to keep his fear in check paved the way for a radically more productive and empowering approach and it showed that it is possible to confront employees with a harsh problem and let them self-organize their way out of it.”
STORY #2: Excerpt from The Noticer Returns, by Andy Andrews
“Several years ago there was an industry-wide slump. Folks were simply not buying cars. And it wasn’t just us; all dealerships were suffering during a national economic downturn. Even heading into the holiday season, which is traditionally a good time for us, it was bleak. Knowing that December did not appear promising and deciding we would not sit around and mope, we began working for our longtime customers and those potential customers who would be making decisions in the future.
“We put ads on radio, in print, and online, but not a single one was about prices or a sale. We told a truth that consumers rarely hear, and it got their attention. We said, ‘Business is slow, and we have time on our hands during the Christmas season!’ The next line was, ‘We want to give that time to you, the members of our community.’ The rest of the ad or radio spot or whatever told them exactly what we were going to do.
“We moved the majority of our service people into the showroom with their tools, and there, until Christmas Eve, the mechanics, the salespeople, the receptionist, and yours truly spent all day, every day, and on into most of the nights, putting together toys for anyone who wanted our help.”
“Ha!” Christy exclaimed. “Really?”
“Yep, really. We did not charge a dime. No tipping was allowed. We had doughnuts and coffee for people who wanted to wait, or they could go shopping an come back anytime. I have no idea how many bicycles I put together that December, but let me tell you something, I could put one together in my sleep now.”
They all laughed.
“Anyway, here’s what happened. People were grateful. We were excited because of the folks we had helped. It was an incredible Christmas for us. We didn’t sell many cars, but that didn’t matter. We always make our decisions based on long-term benefits. Operation Christmas Toys was exactly that. And it was fun. We’ve done it twice more since.”
“You didn’t’ sell many cars?” Baker asked, confused. “I thought you were giving us an example of something that worked….something that helped you rise above the competition.”
“Oh, I just meant we didn’t’ sell many cars then,” Jack said slyly. “When the industry slump ended and folks began buying cars again, it seem like they were buying them all from us.
“All that shopping for the best price? Seeing what dealership would go a hundred dollars lower than the other guy? None of that mattered anymore to the folks we had helped. You see, Baker, by adding value to people’s lives beyond their traditional thoughts about our business, we made quite a few friends. Those friends decided where they would buy their next car well in advance of actually needing one.”
“Unbelievable,” Baker said.
“Not really,” Jack countered. “People want to be treated well. They’ve come not to expect it, but they’d still like for it to happen. I decided years about that no one would be treated or welcomed or honored anywhere or by anyone better than they would be treated when they ran into me, whether I was ‘on the job’ or not. This wasn’t even necessarily a business thing. It was a life decision for me that turned into a business asset”