In January 2009, founder and chairman of India’s Satyam Computer Services—the “largest publically traded company you’ve never heard of”—Ramalinga Raju confesses to massive accounting fraud and resigns. In a five-page letter to the board, he described the problem saying, “It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.” In an instant, he left behind him, chaos, distrust, and plummeting moral among his more than 53,000 employees. But Riding the Tiger is not about how the Enron-like tragedy occurred, but how a leading through learning strategy calmed the chaos and helped the company recover and rebuild.
Authors and former Satyam employees Pricilla Nelson (Global Director of People Leadership) and Ed Cohen (Chief Learning Officer) share the take-away lessons learned on the road to recovery and renewal. Step one was what they eventually called the “Lights On” strategy. That is “deciding exactly what must be done to keep the business moving and doing only that which is critical to help the organization stabilize.” They describe 6-steps—beginning with hold everything and build an adaptable stop-stop-continue plan—based on the two pillars of learning and communication.
Nelson and Cohen write, “Learning is critical for stabilizing the organization, providing guidance to leaders, communicating with employees, and keeping the business open.” Communication is critical. “The leaders who lead out loud—those who maintain transparency, approachability, and integrity—are the ones with whom people want to work, in good times and bad.”
Venkatesh Roddam, Director of VenSat Tech India was the CEO at Satyam BPO (a Satyam subsidiary), reflects on the resilience at Satyam, “To be faced with a crisis the magnitude of what Satyam dealt with and then one year later to be reborn and vibrant in a new avatar speak volumes about the value of a strong leadership culture. This resilience is the result of years of painstakingly implemented leadership strategies.” The authors stress the need for developing leadership guidelines in order to leverage learning and to assist leaders with the complicated people and relationship dimensions of the business. You can use these 12 guidelines as a basic for coaching conversations:
- Understand that we will never get back to normal: While it is comfortable to want to seek the status quo, “normal” in times of a crisis is constantly changing. Leaders need to move on to seek better ways of doing things, letting these new ways become the new normal.
- Take care of one another: Listening reduces anxiety. Provide regular updates on what is happening across the organization and expand inclusivity.
- React…pause…respond: The right response will be made once information gathering, integrity, an open heart, and seeking to understand have been considered.
- Talk—even when you don’t believe there is much to say: Overcommunication is essential during turbulent times. Consistent and continuous messaging prevents rumors from spreading and demonstrates the leaders’ approachability and transparency.
- Be visible—now is not the time to play hide-and-seek: People become fearful when the leader goes into hiding. As a leader, be present, inform comfort, and provide strength for others.
- Maintain integrity and high value morals: Current circumstances should not influence or distort your definition of integrity and other core values.
- Optimize costs, with retention in mind: Make cost optimization decisions keeping employee retention in mind. This allows leaders to assess risk and make more informed decisions.
- Be a brand ambassador: The organization needs people who are brand ambassadors. As brand ambassadors, you are responsible for representing the organization both internally and externally in a positive manner. This means you must refrain from making statements that might cause further turbulence.
- Assess and rebuild trust: Rebuilding an injured organization requires making difficult decisions that not everyone will understand. For this reason, you and other leaders must continuously asses and rebuild trust.
- Remember, leaders are human, too: Though there will be difficult times during a crisis, as leader, it is important to remain composed.
- Think like a child: Try to live “in the moment,” not allowing business to consume every moment. Work/life balance can exist, even in a crisis.
- Take care of your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being: Don’t put any aspect of your well-being on hold. While change and uncertainty at work are draining, you cannot allow them to take over your life.
The authors say that 87% of businesses fail to recover from devastation such as this because they have “not correctly aligned their priorities for recovery, and more importantly re-growth. Too often the immediate focus is put on salvaging customer relationships and brand identity. The relationship with employees does not receive the same priority. Leaders do not communicate as much as needed leaving them wondering what the future holds for them and their colleagues. This dichotomy results in major turnover, far more than companies in crisis can withstand, and ultimately contribute to their failure.”
12 Leadership Guidelines for Leading through Learning in Turbulent Times