Leader’s First Response To Decline

You’ve been appointed to head an organization. Could be a business, church, nonprofit. Wherever you are in life.

The organization is thriving. All indicators were up. People affiliated with the organization are enthused. Good things are happening all over. Leadership teams are planning expansions.

Then a change happens. Imperceptibly at first. Few, if anyone, notice. But growth stopped. No real decline, yet. But a couple of staff leaders left, leaving behind some leadership gaps. You, the overall leader didn’t move quickly to fill the gaps. They just slid by.

Eventually the decline is in progress. At first only key people in the organization notice. Then more people notice. A key top staff person notices and brings to your attention. Conflict erupts. Now there is another key gap in the leadership team.

This is a situation I’ve seen several times in my career. I did try to salvage a couple. In one I was actually “president” for a short time while my partners tried to raise money for a takeover. They didn’t, we failed, now I’m writing here.

But back to our fearless leader. The one who seems oblivious to the by now obvious to everyone decline. If you were in that position, would you

  1. Call an emergency staff meeting of the perhaps dozen top leaders to address the problem; or
  2. Gather together a larger group–say greater than 25–and begin a month’s long vision planning exercise, or
  3. Do nothing and either ignore the situation or hope it reverses?

I have never been in the situation (and I can think of at least four I’ve been in) where the leader chose number 1.

Mostly I have seen the non-choice choice of number 3. Either the leader is totally out of their league and just flounders, or their narcissism makes them ignore the situation. Perhaps even degenerating into blame.

Then, I’ve actually seen number 2. All attention is diverted from important and immediate tasks while the entire leadership team squanders its attention on dreaming of what might be.

What should you do? I’d suggest steps such as:

Gather the top leadership team and get them to acknowledge the problem

Gather facts and stories about the situation

Perform root cause analyses (5 why’s, as we say)

Tackle one main problem as quickly as it is identified

If one of the issues that pops up is that “no one understands what we stand for”, then the messaging both internal and external has become muddled. In that case, it is time to go back to the vision statement of the organization and sharpen it. Then make sure that all messaging is consistent.

Maybe the customer experience is not good. Then a team can tackle that problem.

Notice that by doing this, the leader focuses the leadership team and infuses new energy. The new energy should spread throughout the organization as teams form and more people are involved.

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