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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How to look away from a train wreck

In one way or another, we have all experienced scenes we thought shocking… and found ourselves tempted to take a second glance. You know what I mean. You’ve seen people “rubber-necking” or gawking on the highway. They make a conspicuous effort to resist the temptation to stare by only peeking quickly. But whether you call it innocent or morbid curiosity, a compelling force begs us to look.

Right now, the economy appears to be pretty much a train wreck, and people are having a difficult time looking away.

It is, perhaps rightfully, the focus of conversation, the headline in nearly every section of the newspaper, and the lead story on virtually all news channels and programs. But in accepting (finally) that a recession is underway, and now attempting to project its severity and length, many politicians, economists and other pundits are cautioning that at least some of the economic bad news could be called “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” (As an example, see this story from the New York Times, 12/8/08.)

Implications: It is good to be informed. But even things that are good for you can be toxic when consumed in ridiculous quantities.

There will be a time—it could be next month, next week, or this afternoon—when consumers say, “Enough already… I need a little good news.” The question is whether you, or your product, service or company… is in a position to be that bearer of good tidings. Does your service relieve stress? Does your product provide comfort? Does your organization exude a sense of optimism?

At some point, people (and companies) will drive just beyond incident on the highway they have slowed down to see. Something inside them will say, “That was a distraction, but I have to put that behind me because I have somewhere I have to be. And the only way I’m going to get there is if I look forward, keep my eyes on the road… and drive.”

Mike Anderson

You are(n't) what you drive

A few weeks ago, chief executives from the big three automakers went to Washington to ask for their share of bailout money. The $25 billion price tag was not the biggest target of pushback from Congress, the media, nor consumers. It was that the executives got to the meeting by private jet.

Almost overnight, the focal point of the conversation went from “financial crisis” to “out of touch.” And it made the three instant celebrities on a wide variety of blogs… including the Huffington Post.

People wanted to know whether the leadership of these companies really had a grip on the situation. All kinds of questions were flying around: Why should major corporations get billions in aid when families are scraping by? Wouldn’t it have been a nice gesture of their own fiscal restraint if they would have flown commercial (coach) like the rest of us, or even driven one of their own cars?

Implications: My intent is not to write about whether the big three should get aid. Sometime very soon, they probably will… and they probably should, for reasons I won’t go into here. The greater issue behind this story—the one you can use—is the reminder that a company (or its people) cannot simply Talk the Talk. They must Walk the Walk.

If you are asking employees to participate in cost reductions (cutbacks, layoffs, reduction in resources, or other attempts to increase output-per-person), has your leadership demonstrated its willingness to lead by example and share that burden? If you are asking the customer to accept a surcharge, or reduced hours or services, have you also explained steps the company will take to mitigate their inconvenience, and that you’ll return to “normal operations” as soon as possible?

That chief executives have been asking for help during this downturn is not the big story. That they initially expected that sacrifice to be one-sided is what turned into a public relations nightmare. In what ways can your company—or your department—avoid making that same mistake?

Mike Anderson